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Perspective | Learning from COVID-19: What students told us

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As state leaders, policymakers, and public school systems across North Carolina debated when and how to return safely to in-person learning, WakeEd Partnership hosted three focus groups to discuss remote learning and school reentry with Wake County Public Schools students, teachers, and principals. This three-part series is a reflection on what was shared from each group.

As North Carolina — and the country — debated how and when to return to in-person instruction, the primary focus was often on teachers and adult staff members, as they are more vulnerable than students when it comes to contracting severe cases of COVID-19. But too often, the voices that were noticeably absent were those of students themselves.

WakeEd Partnership hosted a virtual session with high school students after their normal learning day had concluded to hear directly from them. We heard about their experiences with reentry models and their perceptions of both virtual and in-person settings, as well as their feelings toward considerations for the future of returning to school in fall 2021. 

Recognizing the duality

Repeatedly throughout our discussion, students in our focus group reflected openly on the complexities that teachers faced in a dual learning environment where they had to provide instruction both in person and online simultaneously. Because of this format of learning, the students spoke of their own personal dips in productivity.

One student stated: “I was a fairly strong student going into the pandemic; but I feel both for in-person and for virtual, I am not absorbing as much information as I used to. In-person [at] school sometimes … I do not feel as free to learn sometimes, because the virtual students need equal attention. So there is a wait time involved, which impacts the level of engagement we can give. And then when I am in online days, there is still waiting time, as I wait for teachers to engage with in-person students.”

Because of this duality, all students in the focus group agreed that the online environment, since returning to a hybrid model, made it more difficult to learn.

Teacher connections

Another concern was the impact that the hybrid model has had on helping students and teachers build authentic relationships with one another. The students spoke of how in a normal year, it doesn’t take very long for them to get to know their teacher’s personality and teaching style. One student said it took them until halfway through the first quarter just to really feel familiar with their teacher. 

For upperclassmen, this is a very critical component of the learning process, as the prospect of applying to college is within view. The hybrid model — while it does not completely prevent teacher-student connections from forming — certainly presents an additional level of stress and potential barriers to students. One student equated this idea to the concept of reaching out to a stranger.

Schedule concerns

Courtesy of WakeEd Partnership

Another impact of the hybrid learning model is changes to students’ daily schedules. For those in 11th and 12th grade, one of the most significant repercussions has been the inability for students to meet with teachers as their office hours have been reduced in an effort to staff school buildings appropriately. These meetings with teachers are critical and the conversations that transpire between students and teachers after school are invaluable.

Many upperclassmen throughout the district opt to take advanced placement (AP) courses, which have end-of-course exams that are graded on a 5-point scale, and colleges use these scores to determine how much credit a student will receive for having passed the exam. The students in the focus group mentioned that with hybrid learning, there is the benefit of being able to go back and re-watch lessons. However, the catch, which was re-emphasized by all participants, was the idea that re-watching lessons does not always help you to learn what you previously missed. The one-on-one interaction between students and teachers is absent from the school day.

Hope to stay

The most positive thing that was spoken of was the awareness of teacher flexibility within the curriculum. One student shared their own insight: “You obviously don’t come into teaching because of the money, but because you like what you do. And because of that, we need to let teachers do [some] of what they want to do. A lot of times, this [ends] in a positive result.”

The students we spoke with were very attuned to the fact that their teachers seemed to have not only a little more flexibility with what they taught, but in their empathy toward their students. One student provided the example of a teacher who would do a “pulse check” with students before providing a quiz in class, and shared that the teacher was flexible when most of the students in the class indicated they didn’t feel ready to perform the assessment. Likewise, another student indicated that they also hope students will continue to be more flexible with their teachers. “Everyone has lives outside of school, and also outside of the pandemic,” said the student.

A note to teachers

We asked the student participants to end by imagining that they could have a minute one-on-one with their teachers. What would they tell them? Their responses were passionate, genuine, and full of the same grace that our teacher and principal groups exhibited. Below are a few quotes that resonated with our team.

“I am very proud of my teacher and their teaching. One teacher in particular was teaching STEM and also made it culturally relevant. I think this teacher and this course is a model of how teaching should be from here on out. Everything from resources provided, to how the teacher engaged students online.”

“I would just say thank you. This year has been hard on everyone. I know one of my teachers just recently had a child; trying to be a mom and also prioritizing their students, must be a challenge! Another teacher of mine who had health issues, was told by doctors not to log into class to teach. That teacher refused, because they didn’t want to fail their students.”

Considerations for the new school year

The issues highlighted by students — and teachers and principals in subsequent focus groups — point to areas that should be addressed as schools prepare for the next school year. We hear students and teachers expressing their sincere frustrations over teaching and learning in a hybrid format. We know that many districts are already planning for there to be a virtual component to learning for the fall, though details are scant at the time of this writing. We commend those at the table to consider how we might work to make virtual options as successful as possible while also considering the needs of those that are in person. 

At WakeEd Partnership, we recognize the value of the learner taking the lead. As adults, it can often be difficult to not allow our lived experiences to shadow our thinking about students, and tamping down their own agency. We are in awe of the amazing feats that so many students have accomplished and the obstacles they have overcome to make this year as successful as possible, and promote the balance of allowing students to have active agency at the table.

Douglas Price

Douglas Price is the Director of Programs for WakeEd Partnership, an independent nonprofit organization composed of business and community leaders committed to improving public education in Wake County. Douglas was the 2019 North Carolina Burroughs Wellcome Fund Charter School Teacher of the Year and is an educator of 12 years. Previously he served as a Hope Street Group Fellow: Teacher Advisory Council, EdAmbassador with EdNC, and participated in several key fellowships throughout NC, including Hope Street Group: Teacher Voice Network, the Kenan Fellows Program for Teacher Leadership, the Education Policy Fellowship Program (NC Public Forum), and the NC Collaborative (Duke Research Clinical Institute). He is a current Doctoral candidate at UNC-Greensboro in Educational Leadership.