Every month, members of Oregon Student Voice come together to discuss and learn about a timely topic together. These meetings, completely student-led, are an opportunity for middle and high schoolers to share their opinions and experiences. The comments shared help OSV guide organization-wide efforts and inform other education stakeholders on students’ thoughts. For the last two months, students across the state discussed their concerns with distance learning in Oregon and how teachers, legislators, and other key decision makers can resolve those issues.
Mental Health and Motivation
Motivation and mental health are two struggles students face in school daily. Between a social life, academics, extracurriculars, and many more tasks, students are forced to balance a million things on their plate simultaneously. The addition of a global pandemic seems to have toppled the pile over, creating mental health struggles for many Oregon students. The new format of distance learning creates a lack of motivation. Often, students are motivated by their peers and teachers; online school has made those connections difficult to form and maintain. Students feel even more guilty for taking a break, or doing self care, due to the work culture perpetuated by distance learning.
The best benefit from distance learning, members say, is the flexibility and ability to self pace. By increasing the amount of asynchronous and individual work, teachers can insure students are learning in a style that works for them. In addition, creating variety in the work assigned can help students feel less bored and engage them more in class. The best solution according to OSV members is communication. As teachers and administrators navigate the new world of distance learning, students want their voice heard in those decisions. Check-ins about how the course is going can ensure students’ needs are met.
Technology, especially access to technology, has been an issue in the Oregon Education system long before the COVID pandemic. However, since we’ve begun online school, the inequities and issues have only been perpetuated. Wifi and bandwidth issues are extremely disruptive to students’ productivity, whether it be their own connection or their teachers’. It wastes class and work time. Although school districts have attempted to resolve this issue, the solutions are far from enough. School issued chromebooks are slow and glitchy, and don’t allow students to work as productively as needed. There’s little communication about how to use digital platforms, like Canvas, and the transition has been difficult for many students. When technological problems arise, students often aren’t treated with enough understanding from teachers. They’re punished for their lack of technology access or tech “savviness”. In addition, the requirement of keeping a camera on during the entire class period can be stressful to students with poor internet, social anxiety, or different home situations.
Technology also brings along a unique set of mental health struggles. Students across the state are suffering from what is called “Zoom anxiety” or “screen fatigue”. Many students report feeling exhausted after a day full of Zoom calls, due to a heightened sense of anxiety or stress. They’ve found it difficult to connect with other students, and especially teachers, through a digital platform. OSV members say the most effective way to combat this is for teachers to simply spend a few minutes each class period checking in on students.
Schoolwork and online curriculum
Schoolwork wise, students feel overwhelmed with the number of assignments every night. This is not only due to the fast paced curriculum caused by a switch to quarter/semester systems, but also due to an increase in busywork. In order to make up for the lack of in person class, students find that many teachers have been assigning obscene amounts of busywork. Often at no fault of their own, teachers underestimate the time it takes students to complete assignments. Students feel overwhelmed and discouraged by this work that often takes a toll on their mental health. In addition, the lack of consistency between classes has created stress. Communication about deadlines and attendance has been lacking in multiple school districts.
An overarching solution to these problems is communication. With this drastic transition, students, teachers, and parents have all felt a lapse in communication between each other and between the school district. With so much change, a lack of communication can exacerbate already existing problems. Most importantly, students want more empathy and patience from their teachers, from due dates to technology. Handing out more asynchronous work, as opposed to in class work time, is another solution.
Do students feel safe returning to in person school?
The short answer is no. The long answer is that most OSV members expressed strong concerns with returning to in person school. Despite their issues with online learning, they believe that with the current state of the pandemic, it’s not safe for students or their families to return, even under a hybrid system. When many school districts across the state are advocating to return to school, it’s extremely important to consider students’ feelings of safety in the decision. Students with immunocompromised family members especially felt unsafe returning to in person school.
The transition to distance learning has been difficult for all involved: parents, teachers, district administration, classified staff. However, it’s ultimately the students that are most impacted. Our education experience has been drastically altered, and these impacts will last throughout our lifetimes. It’s absolutely imperative that decision makers in Oregon consider the ramifications of their actions on students. This can’t be done through speculation or tokenization, but only through an authentic implementation of student voice in decision making atmospheres. Now, more than ever, we need a seat at the table.
Emily Zou is a sophomore at Lakeridge High School and serves as the Co-Executive Director of Recruitment and Trainings for Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.