teen students walking outside school wearing masks

Middle and high school students say that afterschool programs have helped them cope with the challenges of COVID-19.

Youth Forum Reveals Student Perspectives on Virtual School

By Autumn Rivera | Feb. 5, 2021 | State Legislatures Magazine

The stressors of COVID-19 have been especially difficult for youth to manage. Their challenges include navigating online coursework, separation from their peers, safety concerns and internet connectivity issues, among others. To gain insight into their well-being and the effectiveness of virtual learning and afterschool programs for middle and high school students, NCSL provided three youths an opportunity to speak directly with state legislators and staff.

During its December 2020 Virtual Youth Forum, NCSL spoke to students from Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The students, who participate in afterschool programs for speech and debate, community service, STEM programming and robotics, recounted their pandemic experiences and offered advice to policymakers for moving forward. Following the students’ remarks, Utah Senator Ann Millner (R) and Maine Representative Rebecca Millett (D) responded to the student leaders about their experiences.

Mental Health Concerns

The forum focused on COVID-19’s effects on the students and their peers, the skill-building they feel they have missed out on, and the role of afterschool programming in dealing with these challenges and aiding in recovery.

All three students raised concerns about rising mental health case numbers and noted an increase in depression among their peers. While schools have provided mental health supports, one student said it’s easier to disregard these supports while they are virtual. Additionally, they expressed unease with virtual learning as it has hindered peer engagement. They believe this could be contributing to lower grades, lower test scores and a higher number of student absences. The Pennsylvania student, who lives in a rural community, said connectivity issues exacerbate these concerns.

The students said they and many of their peers have relied on afterschool programs to stay engaged. One student emphasized that afterschool programming flexibility has allowed for experiences that would otherwise be missing throughout this pandemic. The students also discussed the skills they would like to continue developing once their afterschool programs can resume in person. They hoped their programs would continue to provide them with opportunities to engage in career exploration, social and emotional development, mentor relationships, stress management skills, and expansion of their leadership skills.

While discussing COVID-19 recovery, the students looked to their afterschool programs for answers. They said that afterschool provides the space for social interactions, teamwork and joint problem-solving, allowing them to start healing from the challenges of extended self-isolation. One student suggested that afterschool programs could provide a safe space for students while their families focus on economic recovery. They also believe continued recovery can occur through summer programming opportunities.

Advice for Lawmakers

The students said they hoped legislators would consider some of their concerns as they go into new sessions and revise budgets, and that they would acknowledge the experience young people have had throughout the pandemic. They hope that legislators considering assessment policies would transition away from standardized testing. They pushed for adding arts in STEM education to help support their development. The students want afterschool’s importance recognized and ask lawmakers to make it more affordable. Finally, one student highlighted that to thrive, all students need to receive lunch during the school day and that it should be provided in ways that do not shame low-income students.

Lawmakers Respond

Following the students’ remarks, Millner responded by summarizing their main concerns and ensuring she had heard them correctly. The concerns she listed included expanding mental health support, creating engaging interdisciplinary learning environments, and providing broad and community-based relationship learning experiences.

Millet acknowledged the youths’ desire to get lawmakers’ help in maintaining student social and emotional well-being, incorporating more art into STEM education, finding opportunities for in-person engagement while taking COVID-19 safety precautions, and supporting afterschool programming. Additionally, she shared the work Maine is doing to support afterschool and students. She emphasized that the state has been trying to come up with ways to fully support arts programs, whether that is virtually or safely outside. Millet said the arts benefit both students and adults and that there should be a focus on adding art to STEM education. Maine has utilized the outdoors to meet safely, she said, but as the weather continues to get colder the state will need to work with partners to ensure there is access to warm clothing for those who need it. Maine has developed a Teen Text Support Line that young people can use if they need support during the pandemic.

Finally, Millet said that Maine has a specific education funding formula that allocates extra resources to English-language learners and early childhood education. Maine has recently broadened the formula to include funding for programs that would benefit economically disadvantaged students.

Legislators and staff attendees noted how articulate and insightful the student presenters were and expressed the importance of hearing directly from youth.

To learn more about these subjects, watch the recording of the virtual meeting. For more information about NCSL’s afterschool work, visit this page. For more NCSL education resources on COVID-19, visit this page.

Autumn Rivera is a research analyst with NCSL’s Education Program.

Links to the Youth Speakers’ Afterschool Programs

NCSL Resources