Back to School: Youth Perspectives on COVID-Era Education

In-person, remote, and hybrid learning. Tech access for students. “Learning pods.”

As students across the country go back to school, community leaders debate how to keep both students and teachers safe while making sure that kids don’t fall further behind. However, one group has been conspicuously absent from this conversation: youth themselves.

When asked, more than half of young people share that they don’t feel safe to go back to school in person. More than two-thirds fear bringing the virus home to their families. Sixty-nine percent are worried about sacrificing the quality of their education. And 70% of students report increasing concern about their mental health in the context of COVID-19.

Young people’s lives have been completely upended by the pandemic. But when it comes to designing the solutions they need, youth perspectives are rarely included.

Three months ago, we spoke to youth across the country as they dealt with the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, we caught up with two of those young people as they prepared to go back to school.

As it turns out, they had a lot to say. We covered topics that SCE is really interested in—COVID-19, education, and tech, to name a few.

Some of their answers really surprised us. All of them demonstrate why it is so, so important for the adults in the room to design solutions with—not for—young people.

Back to school

When we last spoke to Khymari and Susi, they had major concerns about how COVID-19 would affect their education.

Khymari, a graduating senior at the time, was navigating a landscape of college applications and scholarship deadlines that didn’t really make sense. “Because of COVID-19, scholarships are pushing back their application dates and the dates when you’ll hear back, so seniors have to choose which school they’re going to without knowing whether they’ve gotten a scholarship.”

Susi, who was a junior in high school, was struggling with an abrupt transition to online learning. “For me, it’s more difficult,” she said. “I’m a very studious person, and even I’m procrastinating a lot. Normally I have lots of people pushing me, but now I have to be my own advocate.”

Three months later, their concerns look different. We were surprised to learn that Khymari and Susi were less worried about the direct impacts of the pandemic. Rather, they were more concerned about managing difficult course schedules—just like they would have been any other year.

“It makes me nervous, but it’s exciting because everything is a challenge,” said Susi, now a rising senior. “I’m nervous about taking five AP and honors classes! Everything else might be different, but those classes will be just as hard.”

Khymari had similar feelings about starting college. “I’m worried about college and what it’s going to be like, not necessarily about how COVID will make it different.”

Friends and family

In the early days of the pandemic, Khymari and Susi found strength and steadiness in the people around them when everything else was hard to predict. “I was really down the first week…but talking to my teacher made me realize that people did care, including the adults in my life,” said Susi.

Khymari added, “My friends and I…are still making plans for prom and graduation. We know that they aren’t going to happen, but it still boosts our spirits.”

Today, close relationships continue to support Susi when she needs them. “I’ve begun to open up more about everything,” she says. “A few friendships have faded, but this challenge taught me who my true friends are.”

Khymari loves living in a busy household. However, lockdown has definitely posed some challenges. “My siblings have been attending Zoom summer camps, and I have to help them sit still and pay attention,” she says. “And that is not IT!”


Both Khymari and Susi spoke at length about two forms of technology: virtual learning and social media.

For the former, both students definitely feel some Zoom fatigue after three months of online school and remote work. “Between class, work, and social media, I’m getting so sick of staring at a screen,” says Susi. “I’m always hunched over!”

Khymari agreed. “I’m so over it!” she said. “I’ve had lots of tech issues—I didn’t have WiFi for two weeks, so I had to use my phone to call into meetings for my summer job. It’s hard to participate when you can’t see who you’re talking to.”

When we last spoke, Khymari mentioned how she had seen misinformation spread on social media—especially among older relatives on Facebook. Three months later, Susi sees the same thing happening among her peers. “So many people use Instagram to vent or spread fake news,” she says. “Sometimes when I go on there, I just want to see my puppy posts!”

What we’re learning

Khymari and Susi are at the center of so many issues that COVID-19 has brought to the forefront. Their education has been drastically changed by the pandemic. They live in communities deeply affected by both the virus and the subsequent economic fallout. Unsurprisingly, they have some great ideas about how people in power should respond.

  • “We can’t take anyone for granted. While I haven’t lost anyone close to me personally, my parents lost someone close to them to the virus.” – Susi
  • “Every household needs WiFi, a Chromebook, and headphones—for every student. In lots of families, many people share one device. In my house, everyone uses my computer! And not every house has a quiet space where students can work or attend online class, so headphones are really important, too.” – Khymari
  • “Food access! Many CPS students eat most of their meals at school. Now that all of us are at home, we’re going through three times as much food as usual. That’s hard for a lot of families.” – Khymari
  • “If you’re expecting people to go to classes in person, you need to offer free COVID testing to everyone!” – Khymari

Khymari and Susi, like many of us, have begun adjusting to the “new normal” of a post-COVID world. But adjusting to a pandemic isn’t the same as finding it easy. These young people have lots of ideas about how to make COVID-era education more effective, empathetic, and safe. It’s up to us to listen.

Our latest Challenge, Youth Voice in the Digital Age, supports creative solutions from nonprofits that elevate the perspectives of young people like Khymari and Susi. We look forward to learning from the nine members of our Youth Voice cohort—and the young people they serve—as they launch their programs this fall.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash