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Most educators and students agree: Learning took a nosedive last spring when schools closed during the coronavirus pandemic. A survey of over 20,000 students conducted May through June found that only 39 percent of students said they learned a lot every day while their school building was closed.

Summer break gave school leaders time to reflect on the lessons of the spring and create more effective reopening plans for the fall. But, because the federal government left reopening plans to the states, which passed the task on to districts, which in many cases left the details to individual principals, students across the country are experiencing vastly different schooling scenarios.

After instruction went online when schools closed last spring, just 39 percent of over 20,000 students surveyed said they “learned a lot every day.”

Still, across those differences, students have identified common problems and shared similar ideas for what schools can do better.

What is and isn’t working for students? What do they believe could be changed or refined? I spoke to students — some attending school virtually, others in person — who shared their struggles and ideas for improvement. Here are their insights.

Protect children and their families from coronavirus

Sophia Perry, a senior at Red Bank High School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, says her school has been lax in enforcing its mandatory mask-wearing policy. Credit: Magdalena Slapik for The Hechinger Report

Like many schools across the country, Red Bank High School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, gave students a choice between attending classes in person and receiving exclusively online instruction this fall. Sophia Perry, a 17-year-old senior, chose to attend in person. When her school reopened on August 12, in the second stage of a phased reopening, she attended in-person classes just two days per week. Students who had chosen in-person instruction, like Sophia, were split into two groups that alternated the days they learned on site.

“I was fine with that, because half the school was there,” said Perry. “It felt like a ghost town a little bit. But, at the same time, the teachers could slow down. All the students, you could tell, were really connecting. Also, you could see the precautions. We had to sanitize everything down before we use it, and if we use equipment like media or weight training, sanitize that down.”

“It felt like a hot mess … The schools aren’t built to have students separated, so there was no way we could really [socially] distance. In a lot of the classes, I saw teachers trying to space it out the best way they could, but there’s certain classes, there was absolutely no way around it.”

Sophia Perry, 17, a senior at Red Bank High School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on the return to in-person classes five-days a week

Then, a few weeks after reopening, Red Bank moved into Phase 3, and all students who had chosen in-person schooling came on site five days per week. “It felt like a hot mess,” said Perry. “The schools aren’t built to have students separated, so there was no way we could really [socially] distance. In a lot of the classes, I saw teachers trying to space it out the best way they could, but there’s certain classes, there was absolutely no way around it.”

Related: A padlocked drinking fountain, tree stump seats and a caution-taped library: See how the coronavirus has transformed schools

Camille Fei, a junior at Philip Simmons High School in Charleston, South Carolina, hopes to start an equity club this year to address the lack of antiracism education at her school. Credit: Magdalena Slapik for The Hechinger Report

Like many students I spoke with, Perry is worried about her school’s mask policy: She has no problem wearing one herself, but is concerned that teachers have been lax in enforcing the rules. “Students leave their masks hanging on their ears or stuck to their chins towards the end of some classes and I wish teachers called it out more and made it clear that they need to be on properly at all times,” she said.

In Charleston, South Carolina, 16-year-old Camille Fei is also worried the grownups in her school aren’t taking mask-wearing seriously, even though medical experts say it is essential to protect against the spread of the coronavirus. Fei attends Philip Simmons High School, part of the Berkeley County School District, which does not require, but encourages, anyone entering the school building to wear facial coverings. “It blows my mind. It’s proven that that’s the only way to help, especially if you’re inside,” said Fei, who is a junior and hopes to become a nutritionist.

“Students leave their masks hanging on their ears or stuck to their chins towards the end of some classes and I wish teachers called it out more and made it clear that they need to be on properly at all times.”

Sophia Perry, 17, a senior at Red Bank High School in Chattanooga, Tennessee

“Our teachers and administrators are definitely doing their best to make everyone wear masks, but there’s always the kids that won’t,” she said. “And, then they can’t do anything because the district says that it’s just suggested. This is probably above them, but if masks could be made mandatory, that would definitely be a better step in the direction of overall safety.”

Eric Sandage, a junior at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, Vermont, feels satisfied with his school’s response to the coronavirus. At his school, masks are required at all times, students are encouraged to wipe down desks after use, and only half the student body is on site at a time so students and teachers can socially distance. Sandage said his largest in-person class is 14 students. “I’m in Vermont. We’re the best state in the country, so, there’s a reason for that,” he joked about his school’s successful approach.

Some students are leaving nothing to chance. In New York City, some 52 percent of students have chosen to stay home and learn remotely, including 16-year-old William Diep. “I chose fully remote learning because I thought that that was the safest option. It is the safest option,” said Diep, who lives in Queens and is a senior at the Brooklyn Latin School in Brooklyn, which is up to an hour away from his home by subway.

“I also live with both of my parents and two sisters,” he said. “I could carry the risk of having the virus and passing it to my family. I wanted to make sure that I do stay safe.”

Make remote learning more meaningful

William Diep, a senior at The Brooklyn Latin School in Brooklyn, New York, has chosen to learn exclusively from home this year to keep himself and his family safe. Credit: Magdalena Slapik for The Hechinger Report

Diep, a published author and educational equity activist, began classes for the year on Sept. 24. His school follows a block schedule, so, at most, he has three Zoom classes per day. “At my school, the way that we’re doing it is, regardless if you’re at home remotely or you’re at school, everyone still does the virtual learning system, where we’re all still on our electronics and we’re all still turning into our Zoom classes, and we’re all still doing our assignments,” he said. “So, no one has the upper edge.”

Fei, at Phillip Simmons in Charleston, has noticed the “upper edge” that in-person students have over remote students. At her school, newly built three years ago, high-risk students have the option of using Google Meet to attend live classes from home. “Which is definitely an interesting approach, but I think it’s a bit lacking in the fact that the teachers are going to cater to the kids that are right in front of them and not the ones on the computer,” said Fei.

“I think there’s definitely a gap in that,” she said. “The teacher can’t do two jobs at once, but, if there was a way for these students, maybe through the county, to have their own teacher that’s just teaching them.”

“At my school, the way that we’re doing it is, regardless if you’re at home remotely or you’re at school, everyone still does the virtual learning system, where we’re all still on our electronics and we’re all still turning into our Zoom classes, and we’re all still doing our assignments. So, no one has the upper edge.”

William Diep, 16, a senior at the Brooklyn Latin School in Brooklyn, New York

Diep, the fully remote Brooklyn student, said he likes the freedom of online learning, but misses connecting and engaging with other students. “In Zoom, it’s a lot more, the teacher speaks to us, and it’s a lot more individual-based. We have to learn some of the content by ourselves,” he said. “There are chances where we can do small-group activities, but they’re only 20 minutes, 15 minutes, and that’s not enough time. It doesn’t work for me, because I’m not a big fan of the teacher lecturing to me. I like to stay engaged in class. I like to interact with my teacher a lot. I like to interact with my classmates. So, it definitely has worsened for me.”

Related: OPINION: Can Zoom classes keep students excited and engaged? We have found some ways

Evelyn Livingston, a seventh grade student at Cameron Academy of Virtual Education in Cameron, Wisconsin, wishes her teachers gave students opportunities to discuss current events, such as the racial protests of the summer. Credit: Corinne Livingston

Last spring, remote learning went so badly for Evelyn Livingston, 12, that she ended up switching schools. She was in sixth grade at Lakewood Elementary School in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, when the pandemic began in the spring. “A lot of teachers really tried really hard to post fun assignments for you to do and make it easier for you to do,” Livingston said. “But, as the time went on, I think the teachers just got tired or they forgot how important it is to try to keep the students engaged, or maybe it was just because they had to change their learning, but they would send a video to you and say, ‘Hey, here’s what you’ll be doing. I posted an assignment in [Google] Classroom. Go do it. It’s due on this day.’”

Livingston switched to Cameron Academy of Virtual Education (C.A.V.E.), a virtual charter school in Cameron, Wisconsin, for seventh grade. The school was already set up with a mostly virtual curriculum pre-pandemic. “The main reason we didn’t want to stay at Lakewood and do online learning through Lakewood is because we knew that there was other schools that had better stats than Lakewood,” Livingston said.

“ … I think the teachers just got tired or they forgot how important it is to try to keep the students engaged, or maybe it was just because they had to change their learning, but they would send a video to you and say, ‘Hey, here’s what you’ll be doing. I posted an assignment in [Google] Classroom. Go do it. It’s due on this day.’”

Evelyn Livingston, 12, on her experience last spring as a sixth grader at Lakewood Elementary School in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin

For each student, remote learning has become synonymous with a lack of engagement and meaningful work. “It’s really hard to focus when you’re at home,” said Sandage, the Vermont student, who attends school in person two days a week and remotely the other three days. “I think it’s just really, really boring to just sit in front of your computer or in front of a piece of paper for upwards of seven, eight hours a day and basically don’t feel like you’re doing anything productive.”

Sandage plays soccer on his school’s team and hopes to study exercise science in college. Staring at a screen most of the day, “you just get sidetracked really easily,” he added. “That’s been my story basically. I keep getting sidetracked really easily because I’m extremely bored by what I’m doing.”

Eric Sandage, a junior at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, Vermont, wishes his teachers assigned less work and made it more meaningful. Credit: Marie LaBombard

Sandage wishes teachers would assign less work, but make the assignments more meaningful. “I want to feel like I’m doing something worthwhile for a shorter amount of time,” he said.

Perry, the Chattanooga student, made a similar argument. “We can’t connect with our friends as much if you’re overloading us with work,” she said. “Keep in mind that we have lives outside of school. Obviously we need to learn, but giving us more work doesn’t necessarily mean we’re learning more.”

Perry is busy. She works part-time at Panera Bread and founded the Model United Nations and Youth in Government chapters at her school. “It’s one thing for a teacher to just say that you’re heard, but it’s a different thing for a teacher to say, ‘Ok. I’m hearing your concerns. All of you have to work Saturday nights.’ Or, ‘All of you have to work during the school week. Let me look at this work load and see if this is really necessary,’” she said. “I think that’s one big thing: for teachers to not only hear us, but to act on the things that we’re saying.”

Make antiracism a part of the curriculum

Students all said there’s one clear way teachers could make school more meaningful this year: Connect classes to the movement against racism that roiled the nation this summer, after police killed George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Perry, who is Black and attended several Black Lives Matter protests organized in Chattanooga this summer, said her school needs to do a lot more to acknowledge both Black history and the current movement for equity. “With our curriculum, I definitely think we need to highlight more Black voices across the board, across all of our classes, outside of Black history month,” she said. “Not just starting with slavery; not just ending with slavery. And, there’s more Black writers than Maya Angelou. That has to be a standard for all teachers: to diversify their lessons.”

Fei, the South Carolina student, who attended a Black Lives Matter protest in Charleston and organized her own in her neighborhood, said her school does not address current events at all, let alone the racial turmoil of the summer. “They didn’t touch on the Black Lives Matter movement or anything that happened at all,” she said about her school, which has a student body that is 56 percent white, 33 percent Black and 5 percent Hispanic. “That’s definitely something I’m looking to change. That was one of my plans this school year: to start some sort of education platform surrounding that and other current events. There’s a total absence of that here.”

Related: OPINION: Educators have a basic but essential role in dismantling racism

In Wisconsin, Livingston is also frustrated. At the beginning of the school year, she said, students in her Civics class were told to watch the news and comment on what they learned using Google Classroom. But, when the teacher noticed that students were debating the Black Lives Matter movement in their comments, she told them to stop. “It was mostly between us, and our teacher never really got involved or tried to educate us,” said Livingston, who attended a Black Lives Matter protest in her town this summer and signed several petitions for justice for Breonna Taylor.

“She didn’t really try to post videos or news articles or anything like that to help us,” Livingston said. “She just let it happen. And then she told us to stop. We never really had a proper discussion about it. We just talked to each other about it and traded information and things like that. I think people and students like me need to learn about those things and discuss them and try to get involved, even though it’s very hard with coronavirus going on.”

Sandage, the Vermont student, was the only student satisfied with his school’s efforts to include antiracism both within the school curriculum and through extracurricular activities. He said the school’s Racial Alliance Club holds a yearly ceremony, attended by most of the school, to raise the Black Lives Matter flag on the school’s flagpole. He added his school’s curriculum includes a diversity of writers and historical figures.

“It’s definitely very ethnically diverse. We obviously do study a lot of old white guys because that’s a pretty significant portion of our history,” he said. “But we also take the time to study and learn from people of different ethnic backgrounds.”

This story about student experience was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Magdalena is a freelance writer, editor and photographer in New York City currently working on an oral history of the U.S. public education system as seen through students’ eyes. Originally from Poland,...

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