When 17-year-old Chloe Pressley listened to her school board discuss how the Prince William County, Virginia, school system should reopen, something was missing. Parents and teachers were weighing in on what students needed, she said, “but they were not saying how I feel.”
As the board debated a virtual or hybrid model, and adults argued about students’ physical safety, Pressley was primarily worried about students’ mental health. “No one was considering the psychological toll each reopening plan would take on students,” she said.
While most parents testifying before the board wanted in-person instruction, Pressley, a rising senior at C.D. Hylton High School in Woodbridge, Virginia, was concerned about how that could happen safely. “I go to a school with over 2,000 kids that walk through the door every single day,” she said. “How is one nurse going to be responsible for all of those kids?”
Since the pandemic forced emergency shutdowns in March, states and counties like Prince William have been grappling with the question of how — and whether — to reopen school buildings. But many students say their perspectives have largely been left out of those discussions.
In the absence of clear federal and state guidance for reopening, school districts have debated everything from whether to mandate masks for in-person classes to how to make online-only learning more effective. In response, students from around the country – from Virginia and Kentucky to Washington and California – are making their voices heard by arming themselves with data, testifying before school boards and petitioning local and state lawmakers. They’ve been letting officials know that while they want to see their friends, they recognize the seriousness of the virus and hope districts prioritize student mental health and improving online learning, especially for vulnerable students.
Those efforts are driven not only by individual students but also by a movement of student-led organizations advocating for a greater student voice in educational decision-making. Pressley got involved and began interviewing other students from her district about their thoughts on reopening after she connected with Move School Forward, a national campaign organized by a coalition of 14 student-led organizations working at the local, state and national levels.
The organizations collaborated to articulate 10 principles for reopening that include listening to students, closing the digital divide, addressing basic needs, moving away from one-size-fits-all instruction and evaluation and creating an inclusive curriculum. The campaign’s principles are grounded in the idea that any conversation about reopening needs to address racial justice and the inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, said Merrit Jones, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She’s also a senior advisor with Student Voice, a national organization that aims to help students take action on issues involving their education. The nonprofit was one of the founding members of the Move Schools Forward campaign.
Emanuelle Sippy, a rising senior at Henry Clay High School in Lexington, Kentucky, and student director of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, another organization involved in the campaign, views student participation in education policy as mandatory. “We think of ‘student voice’ as recognizing and acting upon the fact that students are stakeholders of their education and therefore should be partners in crafting it,” she said. The Prichard Committee team is made up of middle and high school students working to amplify the voices of Kentucky youth on education policy issues.
Pressley, the Virginia high school student, said that interacting with young people like Jones made her realize she too is capable of making change happen. In July, she gathered input from around 150 students in person and on social media. Meanwhile, Ben Kim, a senior at the recently renamed Unity Reed High School nearby, conducted a quantitative survey of around 2,500 Prince William County students. Kim is one of three student representatives on the county school board. Last year, he helped to push through the high school’s name change: It was formerly known as Stonewall Jackson High School, after a confederate hero.
In addition to concerns about mental health, Pressley’s high school peers said they were worried about how well they could learn in a virtual environment, she said. In the spring, they tended to prefer learning in real time, where they had an opportunity to build better relationships with their teachers, she said.
Elementary students told Pressley they wanted more opportunities to interact with their classmates; one fourth grader suggested Zoom recess. Middle schoolers were, on the whole, “kind of confused” about what they wanted, Pressley said, especially those who were transitioning from fifth to sixth grade and didn’t know what to expect.
Personally, Pressley said she would like to see “an amplified amount of empathy” from teachers. “I just want them to become more understanding than they were in previous years, because this is a tough time,” she said.
After gathering the student feedback, Pressley began lobbying board members behind the scenes, texting and cold-calling them ahead of a July 15 board meeting. The goal was to “basically badger them with our concerns and anxieties about going back,” she said.
Pressley found an ally in board member Lillie Jessie, who said the student input had some influence on the board’s decision on July 15 to begin the school year with virtual learning, then transition later to a hybrid model. Some students, such as English language learners and those with disabilities, will be allowed to attend in person when school starts on Sept. 8.
In Kentucky, the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team wanted to know how their peers were dealing with remote learning and capture their thoughts around school reopening.
The students teamed up with researchers at the University of Kentucky to conduct a survey of almost 9,500 students representing nearly every Kentucky county. “My official title is ‘adult ally,’ which is probably the most fun title on my CV right now,” said Daniela DiGiacomo, an education professor and one of the researchers. She helped the students design the survey questions and trained them in interview methodology and the ethics involved in research on human subjects.
The survey, “Coping with COVID-19 Student-to-Student Study,” found that a majority of students felt less engaged with schoolwork this spring, and 84 percent reported taking on new responsibilities, including working and caring for family members. Students surveyed recommended that schools be more flexible about attendance policies and expand mental health services and opportunities for online college and career counseling.
In mid-August, the students presented their data and policy recommendations to the Kentucky State Board of Education. Over the summer, several counties and school districts also reached out, asking for a report limited to the responses of students at their schools.
Lu Young, chair of the Kentucky Board of Education, said that although public health concerns will drive decisions about reopening, the data from the student survey is an important tool in informing decision makers about what various scenarios should look like. “That feedback is invaluable … to get an understanding of what their lived experiences were like from March to the end of the school year,” Young said.
Other student groups have also conducted surveys to capture students’ experiences. The Youth Liberty Squad of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California found that more than half of the 640 students they surveyed in April said they needed mental health support.
Catherine Estrada, a rising senior at Alliance Collins Family College Ready High School in Huntington Park, California, and a member of the Youth Liberty Squad, helped review and analyze the responses to the ACLU student survey. She was particularly struck by responses from undocumented students whose families weren’t eligible for any government assistance, and from students who reported that their parents were frontline workers. “There was an astounding amount of people who were scared,” she said.
Estrada and other students drafted a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, sharing the survey results and advocating for a town hall on student mental health, virtual tutors to help students with summer learning loss and other steps.
A policy advisor to Thurmond encouraged the group to participate in a series of Virtual Student Support Circles this summer and created a new youth committee to advise the Department of Education. In July, students were also invited to testify about mental health before the California legislature, according to Victor Leung, deputy litigation director at the ACLU California.
One of the students who testified was Anthony Flores-Alvarez, a senior at Manuel Arts High School in Los Angeles who is also part of the ACLU Youth Liberty Squad. He told members of the State Assembly’s education that many students have stressful home environments and lost the support system offered by their schools. They have to deal with “the global health pandemic, countering feelings of boredom, stress, anxiety, and fatigue that weigh heavily on their mental and physical health,” while still being expected to excel academically, Flores-Alvarez told the assembly.
Olivia Sanchez, a rising senior at Chaffey High School in Ontario, California, who participated in the youth advisory committee through the Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project, said she was particularly worried about how English language learners would cope with online learning. As a volunteer last year in a program for English language learners, she translated a lot of materials for students and wonders how that will work this fall. “Considering that we’re going completely distance learning for the time being,” she said. “I’m curious to see how it will work out and how they’ll be able to get that help.”
Other students are also concerned about how vulnerable groups will fare with remote learning. Jonathan Fratz, a rising ninth grader at San Pedro High School in Los Angeles, has autism; he struggled with distance learning in the spring, even though he was able to receive the accommodations for students with disabilities outlined in his individualized education plan. “I had a lot of help,” he said. “But it is not the same as being at school, so I worry about the students who don’t have help or access to resources like I do.”
On August 4, Fratz spoke to the Los Angeles Unified school board to advocate for a student voice in district plans for distance learning. Wearing a mask, he stood before a microphone in a nearly empty auditorium while most board members connected via Zoom. Not having the opportunity for frequent interaction with his teachers “will make me fall behind and affect my ability to go to college,” he said.
In Jefferson, Georgia, where schools opened in-person July 31 despite a surge in coronavirus cases in the state, students are pushing for a mask mandate. Jefferson High School seniors Rylee Meadows and Hope Terhune started a petition to obligate mask wearing, which the district had encouraged but not required. “Unless they’re worn universally they don’t work,” Meadows said, noting that many high schoolers live with grandparents or other family members at risk of coronavirus. To date, though, the district hasn’t changed its policy, she said. She estimates that about 60 percent of students wear masks.
In Seattle Public Schools, several students served on committees tasked with envisioning various scenarios for fall. Trevon Mitchell, a sophomore at Cleveland High School, participated in those conversations as a representative of the district’s African American Male Achievement program. He said that educators might need to redefine how they evaluate whether or not a student is engaged in a lesson, especially if they are grading for participation.
“They say you need to smile and the camera needs to be on,” Mitchell said, but that’s not always possible with learning at home. “Me personally, I help my brother with his work because there’s no teachers that can physically be there,” he said. “And if I need to do both, will I still get an A even if I’m not smiling or on the camera? I’m still attentive, but, you know, I gotta do what I gotta do. Plus, we’re going against a pandemic and people got stuff going on at home.”
On July 22, the district announced it would be primarily online for the fall semester. Ajala Wilson-Daraja, an incoming freshman at Eastern Washington University who was also part of the reopening committee, said while he felt like his input was taken seriously, he’s going to wait to see how things unfold in the fall to determine if student activism actually made a difference.
“I’m just really curious to see how much the Seattle school board, the school district, and the superintendent took from the students,” he said, “and how much of it they’re actually going to implement.”