‘Life Is in Chaos’: How 13,000 High School Students Are Weathering the Pandemic

Sep 15, 2020

The pandemic has created enormous challenges for the 56 million K-12 students in the United States, but the heaviest burden has fallen on underserved minorities and learners whose family members have never attended college.

That is the clearest takeaway from survey results published this month by the ACT Center for Equity in Learning, an arm of the nonprofit best known for its college entrance exam.

The survey, administered from March 26 to April 1—a few weeks into the pandemic, when many parts of the country were under shelter-in-place orders and nearly all students had been sent home from school—captured the experiences and struggles of 13,000 high school students who had been registered to take the ACT exam in April or June.

Much has changed since late March. When the survey was sent, the U.S. had under 100,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases. It now has more than 6.5 million. And students, at the time they answered these questions, may have expected to return to school in person later in the semester, or at the very least this fall. But many of those hopes have been dashed.

Still, the survey offers a snapshot of what life and learning were like during the early days of the pandemic for students from a range of backgrounds. And it illustrates how race and class have played a role in how students have weathered this strange year.

Students Miss Their Teachers

If anything from the survey results surprised Raeal Moore, a principal research scientist at ACT and an author of the report, it was that students who were stuck at home wished they “had somebody there in person to help them navigate the learning experience,” she says. “Especially since we surveyed them in March. I almost thought students would be relieved or happy to be doing remote work at home, on their own.”

But student after student left comments expressing how much they missed getting real-time feedback from teachers and interacting with their classmates. Here’s what a few of them said:

“It’s a little harder to learn the material because the teachers are not actually present, and it’s all through the internet.”

“I feel like I’m not learning as efficiently and effectively at home rather than school. It is very hard to learn new topics at home without the instruction of a teacher right in front of you. I prefer learning at school than at home.”

“It is much harder to learn online especially when many teachers are not actually teaching, they are just dropping new materials. I am a person who needs physical interaction to be able to comprehend and learn well.”

Students Need to Be Motivated

What’s often missing in online environments are the regular nudges teachers provide in a classroom setting. Otherwise, Moore says, “students may not have the motivation to be self-directed and do the material that has been assigned to them.” This is one of the themes that emerged in the survey.

Here’s how some of the student respondents put it:

“I feel more engaged and motivated in school than at home. It is harder to learn new topics at home.”

“Online classes do not take into account the attention span of teenagers and it is sometimes difficult to communicate with teachers outside of class or do online work when the internet cuts out.”

“It was better in school because it was easier to ask questions. Also, the school environment improved focus.”

“I can't concentrate as well as in school because it's a new environment that I am learning in and some assignments are confusing since I am using technology for everything.”

Online Learning Access Is Not Equal

For most schools, remote learning meant virtual learning. That means students need access to reliable internet and a device with which to make use of the internet.

In the ACT survey, 35 percent of students described the quality of their home internet connection as “great.” The majority (52 percent) said it was merely “OK.” Another 14 percent said their home connection was unpredictable or terrible.

The demographic breakdown of students who reported “unpredictable” or “terrible” home internet connections illustrates that the issue was worse for students in rural areas than those in urban or suburban areas, and that it was slightly worse for students of color and those who would be considered a first-generation college student (a distinction the ACT uses since it presumes these survey respondents to be “college-bound.”)

Percentage of students in the survey reporting that their internet connection was "unpredictable" or "terrible." (ACT Center for Equity in Learning)

Most students surveyed said they had access to multiple devices at home, but 13 percent said they had access to just one. Of those in this group, 19 percent said that their sole device was a smartphone. That means that 2 percent of the students surveyed had only a smartphone to log into virtual class meetings and complete online homework during the spring, since their school buildings and libraries were closed.

Percentage of students with access to only one device at home. (ACT Center for Equity in Learning)

Access to devices varied greatly among students of different races and family education statuses. Students who would be the first in their families to go to college were twice as likely (22 percent) to have only one device at home than students whose families have gone to college (11 percent). And while only 10 percent of white students and 12 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students had just one device at home, that rate was 23 percent for African-American students and 17 percent for Hispanic students.

The ACT Center for Equity in Learning completed a second survey of students in June, to see how much progress had been made in these areas. The results will be published in the coming months.

Michelle Croft, another principal research scientist at ACT and co-author of the report, says she hopes to see an improvement in students’ internet and device access the next time around.

“We’ve seen a lot of effort to get kids technology [this summer],” Croft says. “A lot of districts were trying to plan for this fall. I hope what they end up providing is more engaging and more beneficial for students, but I think we’re just going to have to wait and see.”

Stressors at Home Affect School

The pandemic has impacted students’ lives well beyond the classroom. Ten percent of those surveyed said they had lost their jobs due to COVID-19. Another 10 percent said their work hours had been reduced. In families that rely on teenage children to contribute to the household income, such changes can be financially devastating.

The ACT also asked students if they or their families needed some kind of help—whether meeting their basic needs, like getting shelter, food and clothing; going to places like the grocery store or doctor; learning content at school; or accessing technology or the internet. Forty-seven percent of first-generation students, 42 percent of African-American students and 44 percent of Hispanic students said yes to needing assistance in at least one of those areas. That’s compared to 25 percent of white students and 29 percent of students who are not considered first-generation.

Percentage of students who said they needed some type of help. (ACT Center for Equity in Learning)

Noting these disparities, Moore says that “everybody has challenges in the pandemic, but there is this compounding nature of challenges for underserved students.”

First-generation students and learners of color were also more likely to report having caregiver duties at home. And first-generation students were more than twice as likely as their non-first-generation peers (43 percent to 18 percent) to have families whose employment was impacted by the pandemic. With regard to both caregiving duties and family employment disruption, Hispanic students were most severely impacted.

Percentage of students who reported having caregiver duties at home. (ACT Center for Equity in Learning)

Some students elaborated on how these challenges have affected them.

“It's really hard to do everything at home, and one of my teachers thinks that just because we are supposed to be in school for 8 hours in a day, he thinks he needs to send me that much work since I'm just sitting at home.”

“My mom and I might need to move because of how her hours got cut down and I lost my job.”

“My only struggle has been with my younger siblings at this time. They are in kindergarten and first grade so they need a teacher. My stepdad works each day and does not get home until around 4, I prefer to have my work finished by then but I usually have to teach the kids from when I wake up to around one.”

The Pandemic’s Toll on Mental Health

Any one of these changes—employment, caregiving, disruption to school, health concerns—can impact a person’s mental health. Combined, the reality is that many students—and many Americans in general—are struggling with anxiety, stress and depression during this period.

As one student put it in the comments, “I feel like life is in chaos at the moment. I am worried and anxious about how this will end.”

This is one of Moore’s biggest concerns for students—and one she thinks should be better addressed by schools this fall.

“I hope there’s an improvement or focus this school year on mental health and social-emotional wellbeing for students at this time,” she says.

Supporting students’ social-emotional health is one of the five policies recommended by the authors in the report. The others are: resolving inequities in technology access, scaling up and improving online education instruction, considering the whole student—from their academic to their social-emotional and physical needs, and addressing food insecurity.

“They are all related,” Croft says of the policy recommendations. “In order to do this well, you have to improve the quality of online instruction, but you also have to make sure students have access to it. Mental health and access to food—those are just another barrier to students being able to participate in education.”


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