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Chloe Pressley, 17, didn’t like what she was hearing.
Adult after adult was testifying before her school board about its plans for reopening. While most parents said they 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?”
As the board debated a virtual or hybrid model, Pressley was also surprised that none of the teachers and parents who spoke broached the issue troubling her most: student mental health. “No one was considering the psychological toll each reopening plan would take on students,” she said.
Since the pandemic forced emergency shutdowns in March, states and counties have been grappling with the question of how — and whether — to reopen school buildings. But like Pressley, 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, Kentucky and Arizona 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 youth-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.
“I would like to have more personal connections with my teachers and counselors … We already knew our teachers in the spring, but personal connections are important at the beginning of the year so they get a sense of where you’re at so they can help you with distance learning. Because everyone is in a really different environment at home.”
Olivia Sanchez, a rising senior at Chaffey High School in Ontario, California
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 non-profit 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 re-named 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.
“My big concern [with reopening] is addressing the educational gap … For African American males in the Seattle School District, we don’t see ourselves reflected within the curriculum. So it makes it harder for us to grasp the importance of whatever we’re learning and connect it to real world issues and things that are going on in our community.”
Ajala Wilson-Daraja, freshman at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, Washington
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.
“A lot of kids, school is their main social interaction with their friends, and fun activities and such. So it’s going to be hard, just staring at the screen. It’s just not the same. So we have to … try to be innovative in the way that we approach the virtual learning experience. So the kids who would have not failed if we were in school, they’re going to be okay.”
Ben Kim, senior at Unity Reed High School in Manassas, Virginia
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 September 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.
“We’re going to be online for the whole fall semester. I feel like it’s the best course of action … For me personally, I suffer from anxiety. So just knowing that I might be around somebody and then come home to my mom who is recovering from medical procedures, and then my elderly grandma … and then thinking about ‘Did I disinfect this? Did I disinfect that? What if they touch this?’ It’s so much.”
Catherine Estrada, a rising senior at Alliance Collins Family College Ready High School in Huntington Park, California
Photo credit: Peter Michelena
“I particularly worry about my fellow students with disabilities, English Learner students, and foster youth students having access to the supports and services that they need to participate in the classroom and be successful … We must be able to voice our concerns, our needs, and our recommendations to make our schools better.”
Jonathan Fratz, freshman at San Pedro High School in Los Angeles, California
“It’s been kind of heartbreaking over the summer to realize that senior year is not going to be what I imagined it would. But memories can be remade and even if we don’t get a prom or a graduation, if we’re saving lives, I think that’s most important. I think a lot of my peers share the same sentiment.”
Kiri Kenman, senior at Catalina Foothills High School in Tucson, Arizona
“On the one hand, we need to prioritize public health concerns. But at the same time, we know that students are dealing with increased concerns about meeting their basic needs. Students desire more mental health services, they need social connection, all these things beyond pure education, that schools provide … I think the first priority probably has to be keeping students safe.”
Sadie Bograd, senior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Kentucky
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 Governor 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.*
“I’m conflicted. But I don’t think it’s acceptable to say that because only .02 percent of the student population will die that we should reopen. I don’t think that’s a conversation that should ever be had.”
Sanaa Kahloon, senior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Kentucky
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.
“I really wish I could go back to school, but as a Native American student, especially with our tribe, the Navajo Nation, our elders and people back at home, they’re really going through a hard time right now … If you have to go back home for ceremonial reasons, you could potentially pass that off to the elders who are the gatekeepers of our languages, teachings and prayers.”
Shandiin Manuel, sophomore at Mountain View High School in Mesa, Arizona
Photo credit: Roshan Spottsville
In Arizona, a group of students from across the state made a video and sent a petition to Governor Doug Ducey advocating that he keep schools closed beyond the August 17 opening date due to the rising number of coronavirus cases there. The students later joined their teachers in a socially-distanced protest and “motor march,” putting signs on their cars and driving two loops around the capitol building. While individual school districts in Arizona have opted to start the year online, the group is calling for remote learning statewide.
Kiri Kenman, an incoming senior at Catalina Foothills High School in Tucson, said she had already decided to take online classes her first semester before her school district announced that it would start the school year remotely. While her district has tentatively decided that in-person instruction will resume in September or October, she’s not optimistic. “The way case rates are going right now, I can foresee it going much longer,” Kenman said. “And I think teachers need to not only be prepared for remote learning now, but as a long-term way of learning.”
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.”
“There is an online option [at my high school], but the only problem with that is it won’t offer all courses. I’m taking a government course so I can graduate, and it’s not offered. So I’m in this situation where I need to go to school, but I can’t do it all online. I have a grandma who lives with me part-time and she has an underlying auto-immune disease and I don’t want to give her COVID … It’s a really hard decision.”
Sophia Hammer, senior at Gilbert Classical Academy in Gilbert, Arizona
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.”
*This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Victor Leung’s last name.