“I Miss the Sound of Our Bells:” Massachusetts High School Students Reflect on Life During COVID-19
Nearly two years ago, an unprecedented, widespread closure of schools rippled across the nation in response to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. Though educators, parents, students, and employers all hoped for a turning point, disruptions to schooling, work, and nearly all aspects of day-to-day life have continued.
To date, several valuable large-scale studies provide a bird’s-eye view of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on K-12 students in the United States. What is conspicuously missing, however, are the voices of young people themselves.
I Miss the Sound of Our Bells: Massachusetts Students Reflect on Life During the COVID-19 Pandemic adds to this conversation, sharing the lived experiences of high school students—especially students of color—as they navigated a drastically altered world during the 2020–2021 school year.
“Honestly, I miss the sound of our bells, like, telling us to go to class, even though I hated it when I was there. I would do anything to have it back again.”
Lisa, 10th grade
I Miss the Sound of Our Bells offers seven key findings about high school students’ lived experiences during the pandemic. In summary, we found that:
1. Remote learning presented specific struggles for nearly every student we interviewed. Young people described a loss of connection with teachers and peers, the distraction of trying to attend school online while helping younger siblings do the same, struggling to keep up with the workload, or failing to make learning gains, whether or not they maintained their grades.
2. Some students took on additional responsibilities for paid work or caregiving, because of the way that COVID affected the adults in their families. As a result, their school attendance and engagement suffered.
3. Young people became acutely aware of illness and death, either because of close contact with COVID in their households, or because family members worked in jobs that students worried would place their health at risk.
4. Changes at school and home wrought by COVID-19, along with heightened attention to race-based violence and calls for racial justice, led to widespread mental health issues.
5. Students’ networks of support among both peers and adults shifted. Some friendships deepened, and most students had at least one adult they could turn to for help. However, few young people reported organized support systems or programs that could connect them with needed resources.
6. Young people met pandemic-related challenges with resilience, increased self-awareness, and a new appreciation for what “normal” life looked like. They recognized academic learning losses, but also important life lessons.
7. Though students craved the connection of going back to school in person, they also worried about whether returning to the classroom would be safe.
In addition, a few students highlighted discrimination related to race and disability. While these voices were fewer in number, the theme was a powerful one.
The report offers recommendations for policy and practice, including:
Prioritize connecting young people with peers and adults, whether virtual or in-person. Young people need connection and support more than ever before. Regardless of whether young people are able to attend school and other activities in-person, schools and youth-serving programs should seek opportunities to deliberately connect high school students with their peers and with supportive adults.
Develop scalable responses to the current mental health crisis. Nearly two years into the pandemic, life is not the same for these young people, even with a return to in-person school. Many schools are utilizing Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding to help expand their capacity to provide mental health services; others are implementing full-school social emotional learning curricula.
Help every young person stay on a path to graduation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, students, who may not have been previously disengaged, found themselves unable to fully participate in their academic studies because of competing family priorities. A deeper understanding of the barriers to academic engagement for each student will allow educators to consider how to offer robust, meaningful, and accessible learning opportunities for all youth. In some districts throughout Massachusetts, MassGRAD funding is being used to increase the number of “adult advocates” in schools to help fulfill this goal.
Change the narrative about “learning loss” to one that recognizes developmental gains. The prevailing narrative on academic learning loss overshadows what young people in this study shared— that the last one and half years of school have been a period of change, exploration and growth for them as people. As the pandemic continues, and the education system continues to face challenges amplified by the pandemic, it is important to continue to learn from the experiences of young people and shine a light on all they have achieved.
As districts strive to re-engage students and accelerate learning during yet another year of disruption, it is essential to listen to what young people themselves say they have lost and gained during the COVID-19 pandemic. As our education systems continue to respond to shifting public health needs and safety concerns, students are essential stakeholders in decisions about how to educate and holistically support today’s young people.
DOWNLOAD THE REPORT HERE:
Yasuko Kanno, Nick David, Henry (Erning) Chen, Isabel Mullens & Jonathan Zaff
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On February 17th, the Boston University Initiative on Cities & CERES Institute co-hosted a virtual event to release this report and discuss its implications for policy and practice. The event included a research presentation and moderated panel discussion featuring:
Bethany Allen, Director of Equitable Pathways, Boston Public Schools
Dr. Yasuko Kanno, Associate Professor & Chair of the Department of Language and Literacy, BU Wheelock College
Katharine Lusk, Co-Director and Founding Executive Director, BU Initiative on Cities
Dr. Mary Jo Rendón, Family and Community Engagement Specialist, Waltham High School
Eliana, Senior, Greater Egelston High School, Boston Public Schools
Dr. Jonathan Zaff, Research Professor and Director of the CERES Institute for Children & Youth, BU Wheelock College
We are grateful to all of our speakers for making this a wonderful, rich conversation. The entire event is presented in this recording.