To improve distance learning for California’s K-12 students, teachers should interact more with students, schools should offer more help to students with disabilities and equity should be at the forefront of school priorities, a student panel told state education leaders on Thursday.
The panel was part of an online Virtual Student Support Circle hosted by the California Department of Education, as an effort to hear students’ perspectives on distance learning and their mental health during the coronavirus pandemic.
Eight students representing diverse backgrounds spoke about their experiences since school closed in mid-March, and a mental health counselor provided advice and resources for students who are feeling isolated, anxious or depressed.
The 90-minute panel, hosted by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, was the first in a series of student-focused forums related to distance learning and student mental health.
On the whole, students said they were grateful for the effort teachers, counselors and state leaders are putting toward education. But they’d like to see some improvements.
“The first thing I’d do is make sure that there’s regular human interaction between teachers and their students. Half of my teachers haven’t held a single online class,” said Maya Howard, a high school junior from Sacramento who’s a student representative on the Instructional Quality Commission, which advises the State Board of Education.
“I’m simply not learning the material that I would be learning if I was in a classroom,” she said. “I understand that this is inevitable to an extent, but without doubt, students would learn more if their teachers were interacting with them regularly.”
Stephanie Garcia, a student at Richmond High School in Contra Costa County, said that she’s struggling with distance learning and her parents, who didn’t attend school past elementary school, are unable to help.
“Distance learning has challenged me incredibly. … I’m a person who was always on track. But with this pandemic, my motivation has been tested as assignments pile up day after day,” she said. “If I ask my teachers for help, they usually take days in order to respond. Emotionally, I have been drained.”
Extra help for students with disabilities, especially learning disabilities, should be a priority, said Michael Wilkins, a high school senior from Los Angeles who has dyslexia, dysgraphia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
He said his school provides ample support, but he worries about other students with special needs.
“My concern is for students who have learning disabilities who are not receiving their accommodations while we are in this period of online learning. Students really need these accommodations that are essential for them to learn,” he said. “It really breaks my heart that some of them aren’t getting them. And I also feel that there are children who are ‘learning different’ but are not diagnosed yet. And they won’t be properly tested at this moment in time.”
Valeria Gonzalez, a high school student from Huntington Park in Los Angeles County, said that schools needs to better understand the day-to-day realities for students trying to learn online, especially students whose families are low-income or immigrants.
“Being at home actually isn’t that great an environment for me personally. So it’s been a struggle transitioning to distance learning, keeping myself accountable and trying to find a spot where I can concentrate,” she said. “COVID-19 isn’t just a physical health issue, it’s also a mental health issue. … I know for many students, seeing their teachers was the only time they would get checked on emotionally. So, many of us have lost that small opportunity.”
Students also offered solutions and ideas for re-opening schools and staying sane during quarantine. Dawit Vasquez-Suomala, a student at El Cerrito High School in Contra Costa County, thinks high schools should start offering ethnic studies classes when they re-open. Olivia Rose Sanchez, a student at Chaffey High School in San Bernardino County, said that baking, dancing and writing in a journal have been good ways to boost her mood. Brenna Pangelinan, a senior at Eastlake High School in San Diego County and the student representative on the State Board of Education, said students’ insights and perspectives should be a greater part of school decision-making going forward.
Monica Nepomuceno, a social worker and education programs consultant for the California Department of Education, encouraged students to “be kind and gentle not only with our peers and teachers, but with ourselves. … We need to be honest. This is a hard time, and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up.”
She also urged students to check in on their friends and offer help if needed. Students should be on the lookout for those who seem depressed or anxious, might be in abusive situations at home, or have vanished entirely.
“There are high numbers of students who are under the radar. We don’t know where they are or if they’re OK,” she said. “If you know any of these students, tell a teacher. … And if you yourself are struggling, remember there are adults who want to help you.”