Making friends, understanding classes, taking the SATs. These are the general stressors many high school students face. On top of that, they’re dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and its impacts, namely, sudden school closures, social separation and hours of screen time instead of in-person instruction.

These factors weigh on a generation of teens in Washington state that recently reported feeling anxious, unmotivated and uncertain about their future during this past spring semester, according to new survey results collected by students in partnership with The Seattle Times.

Ahead of the school year, educators can learn some practical lessons from these students: Not all at-home learning setups are created equal. Having assignments on different platforms makes it hard to keep track. And most students need understanding and patience, especially as they cope with extra stress.

Some students have taken on the added task of overseeing the schooling of a younger sibling or a job to help support their families in the midst of a global economic downturn. Students are asking educators to make online safety rules and expectations of etiquette clear and consistent. They’re also emphasizing a need to accommodate students who participate in arts programs.

BACK TO ‘SCHOOL’

This story is part of a series about what it’s like to start the school year during a pandemic.

The three students who developed the survey, Neela Agarwal, Ava Finn and Esteban Ortiz-Villacorta — all incoming seniors at Skyline High School in the Issaquah School District — met with Chris Reykdal, the state superintendent of public instruction, to share their findings on Tuesday.

They emphasized to Reykdal the need for schools to understand and better serve students’ mental health concerns by encouraging proactive outreach from counselors and empathy from teachers.

“A lot of the conversation initially with school and COVID tended to be around what the format would look for online instruction,” Finn, 16, said. “It was really important to all of us that we advocated for the mental and emotional needs that students would have within this time because for a lot of students, that [school] is their main resource.”

The students said they felt heard. “He listened to every word that came out. He was making eye contact. He didn’t interrupt,” said Agarwal of Reykdal, who is up for re-election. “For any challenges or questions or concerns that we had where he had a solution, he shared those.”

Agarwal said Reykdal was trying to make sure that any students who need help would be able to enter school buildings so they could talk to a trusted adult.

More than 1,800 students took the online survey, which was distributed through social media, school district email listservs and The Seattle Times, between March and June. About 30% were freshmen; sophomores and juniors each made up roughly 27%; seniors represented about 13% of the total. All answers were anonymous.

Students who attend Seattle Public Schools gave about 17% of responses, followed by the Issaquah School District and the Spokane School District, at around 10% each. Students at the Lake Washington, Northshore and Ferndale school districts gave between 5% and 8% of responses.

Online learning

Almost all students surveyed described their experiences with online learning as a challenge. Those frustrations included difficulty comprehending coursework, trouble focusing and difficulties in finding reliable internet or a quiet place to study. (All survey responses are published unedited.)

“There isn’t an easy way to communicate with peers and work together to solve problems, complete work, or to ask questions/get clarification,” one student wrote.

Students worried about their understanding of subjects like algebra, trigonometry and geometry, which require prior knowledge to build upon. They yearned to review some units because “not all of us are on the same page going into the next school year!”

Some students said their teachers posted lessons and coursework online, but they had to teach themselves the material.

Others said class discussions and debates were stilted by the distance, and some courses, like theater and pottery, lacked the enrichment in-person instruction would have allowed.

Others highlighted inequities in technology.

“Online school assumes that I have the technology I need, that I know how to do all the work, and that I don’t need any teacher help. All of that was at times not true.”

With Zoom, Google Classroom, Skyward, Canvas, and other school-progress platforms, students complained that it was hard to keep track of assignments and would sometimes miss one. Many suggested that schools consolidate work in one spot so it’s easier for students to stay organized.

Socializing

School can be a safe place to escape, particularly for those with troubled family lives, respondents said. It’s also where they connect with their peers.

“Schools need to understand that there are students who hate being with their families because they are toxic,” said one student.

The activities schools often provide help fortify their social lives. “I’m afraid there won’t be social events such as football games, retreats, and or dances for me to make friends going into high school,” one student wrote.

“I’ve had a relatively hard time forming lasting relationships with my freshman peers,” said another. “I’m worried that I’ll have to start all over from square one again.”

Mental health

For students already living with mental health challenges, the pandemic brought an extra layer of hardship.

“Everything feels like things are piling up and there’s not mental help support available.”

They urged teachers to have compassion for students facing added stress.

“Many students including myself struggle with depression and having a teacher call or email your parent saying how you are missing class is very exhausting and makes you feel that schools don’t care about your well-being.”

And several students said they acutely felt the challenges of staying motivated and productive, especially while working at home with distractions.

“As a student with ADHD, it’s been a struggle absorbing information, remembering class schedules, and becoming motivating to do all my work,” said one respondent.

Others said national conversations about racial justice felt more urgent, and schools weren’t addressing these topics.

“With everything going on right now with the Covid-19 or the protests for Black Lives Matter, it can be hard to want to sit and right an essay on ‘Antigone.’ “