Social ConnectionsEngaged, Differentiated Classroom PracticesPhysical + Mental Well-BeingAdvocating for Diversity & EquityQuestions to ConsiderWork to Make Change

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Insight: What did COVID help us realize is actually most important about school?

It’s time to rethink what we consider to be most important about the school experience.

Through 100 Days of Conversations, young people, educators, family and community members across the country talked together about their learnings and realizations about school when the typical experience was disrupted by COVID.

While the current public narrative is largely about “learning loss” (the perceived decrease in test scores during the pandemic), this was not what was on the minds of 100 Days participants. The things they realized were most important (thought often overlooked), included: social connections of all kinds; the ability to create engaging, differentiated classroom practices (so much more challenging virtually); and simply the physical infrastructure and the different kinds of supports available when school was in person (included mental health support, particularly).

Additionally despite how often negative stories of school are highlighted, participants frequently shared how much they simply missed being in school with others (adults and students alike!) for a variety of reasons. There is something about the broadly shared U.S. school experience that people really missed during the pandemic.
The following information was analyzed from conversations between students, educators, families, and community members across the United States.

Conversations

117
+

Voices

510
+

States

37
+
Click on the highlighted words to hear participant voices.

Social Connections

Social Connections were hands-down the aspect of school that people discussed as more important than they had realized previously.
 
While many young people talked about how much they missed their old friends and making new friends, this wasn’t the only aspect of social connection that was missed - they also talked about how they hadn’t realized how much sharing physical space with different people mattered to their well-being, as well as having opportunities to develop social skills.

Forming & Maintaining Relationships

Being able to develop deep relationships with teachers, and with other classmates, felt harder in the virtual or disrupted COVID environment, and it became clear those interactions were important for learning as well as for feeling connected.

As educators and students begin to enter the school building once again, it’s imperative that we provide space to introduce and rebuild relationships. 

The fact that strong social connections are central should not be surprising given the extensive evidence from research that they are key to our sense of happiness and well-being, as well as to our physical health.

Sharing Physical Space

It wasn’t until we started learning online that we realized how important being within a classroom space could be. Although some students thrived online, for many simply sharing physical space and getting to interact through casual conversations in hallways, the lunchroom, outside, and before or after school were more important for happiness and health than people realized previously. 

While many people may know that strong relationships are key to happiness, research has also found that simply the number of people someone encounters and interacts with in a day, even superficially, significantly contributes to one’s sense of well-being. Participants grasped this importance intuitively.

Developing Social Skills

Beyond the relationships being intrinsically valuable, the interactions with others as a way to build social skills was identified as far more important than participants felt they realized before COVID. Many felt that students were missing out on the ability to develop skills in public speaking, as well as in simply creating and maintaining relationships with others. In-person school was missed as a place where we practice being in relationship with others and in community.

Engaging, Differential Classroom Practices

Another aspect of school that was deeply missed during the pandemic was the range of coursework and interactive classroom practices that being in person allows. While some remote teaching allowed for adaptation in terms of synchronous vs. asynchronous learning, students and teachers alike missing some of the options available in person for engaging coursework, flexible learning, and the ways that being in person throughout the day allowed for support in motivation and accountability that being at home and remote did not. 

Engaging Coursework

In the shift to virtual learning, both students and teachers were caught off-guard, and it was no doubt difficult to recreate engaging practices from the classroom in an online space. Many learners described a lack of authentic group learning, as the connection across the screen just wasn’t the same, especially for disabled learners.

The lack of a shared space meant that students (and teachers) often felt left out of the classroom environment and it became difficult to communicate. Students missed the “back and forth” that occurred in a typical lesson: the questions, reactions, and laughter, where online spaces could often be silent and sterile without the rapport that being in person can provide.

Flexible Learning

Shifting online meant that many lessons were relatively the same: a teacher would address a specific topic and assign work or communicate information across the device. It was much more difficult to address the unique needs of each learner. Some learners benefited from being around their peers to have critical conversations, while others missed the ability to have a teacher work with them one-on-one.

Yet, some students thrived in this mode of learning, and saw a lot of benefits from a virtual education. There may be some benefits to virtual learning for some learners that we can utilize in reimagining education.

Motivation and Accountability

When we went online, many had difficulty staying focused on schoolwork. The lack of a routine and set schedule meant that learners struggled utilizing at-home time for what is typically “at-school learning”. Being at home led to increased distractions, because the home isn’t associated with, as one student described, “grind-time”. Having a teacher to guide learners and ensure they understood material was seen as a positive for many learners.

Physical Infrastructure

Being away from campus meant that many recognized for the first time the amount of services that schools provide. For example, the massive burden lifted by free school lunches. As one participant commented, “the pandemic has really brought to light, not new issues, but pre-existing issues, it just amplified a lot of them for a lot of folks.” For the first time, many districts provided free at-home WiFi and free breakfast & lunch services for all who requested it. Schools are more important than simply providing an education, they’re a community service.

Mental Health & Coping

During a global pandemic, mental health support services are/were needed more than ever. Yet, many districts cut funding at the worst possible time. A common theme across students and educators of all ages was the mental toll associated with a disrupted schedule, an isolated virtual environment, and of course, the stress of a global pandemic. The virtual situation exacerbated what was often already poor access to mental health supports in schools and broader communities.

Advocating for Diversity & Equity

The pandemic exasperated the inequities that have existed since the founding of the United States. Conversations frequently highlighted the disparities of people of color and those of low socioeconomic status, calling upon schools and public officials to address these underlying systemic problems. Even when the pandemic is resolved, schools cannot be welcoming, safe, community spaces until this is addressed.

Questions to Consider

For Policy Makers and Activists

  • Even though we face a plethora of problems due to COVID-19, it’s undeniable that inequities existed before. How will we address the underlying problems that face schools after the pandemic?

For Educators

  • Most coverage of the pandemic and school closures have centered “learning loss”, or test scores, as the primary problem in the new school year. What dangers might we run into by focusing on increasing test scores? Should we push back against this? And if we do, how do we reimagine school?
  • The vast majority of young people across the United States brought up how they missed the social connections of school. What can we do in our classrooms and curriculum to ensure students have ample opportunities to focus on relationships?

For Young People

  • Shifting to an online space has meant that we’ve missed out on so many connections. How can we regroup, when it’s safe, to form and rebuild our lost relationships?
  • The pandemic has ravaged communities and especially hurt those who are most vulnerable. How can we assist those who are struggling and as a community, build back better?

Organizations Working to Make Change

Curious how we came to these conclusions?

Learn more about the analysis process at 100 Days of Conversations:
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