Schools across the country have closed and millions of students now face unprecedented challenges. For some students, this is a period of stress and dealing with new mental health issues and the effects of ageism. For many, it is a period of adjustment to a new learning process and lifestyle. And for some youth rights and education advocates, perhaps it’s a chance to pivot to new ways of learning

As an optimistic advocate for youth empowerment, I can’t help but wonder if this might be a turning point in education and youth autonomy. Perhaps school closings could be an educational opportunity. Maybe there will be more individualized and online learning; perhaps we will see a shift away from compulsory in-person schooling. 

I should also note that any changes in the current learning environment should be considered within the broader restrictions on society. If young people experience an increase in academic freedom within the lack of access to the outside world — in the shadow of the loneliness and anxiety of a pandemic — it may have unintended negative effects on the perception of unschooling and homeschooling experiences. As the respected educator and youth advocate Grace Llewelyn said: “I hope that folks…will be careful not to imply that THIS time of extreme isolation has much in common with the usual possibilities available to people who choose to learn and grow outside of school.” 

Regardless, this is new territory. As a youth rights organization, NYRA is interested in the perspectives of young people who have been affected by the pandemic. Have you been facing challenges? Having difficulty accessing resources? Have your classes transitioned to online platforms? Are you enjoying your freedom? Working on new projects? Spending more or less time online? Practicing hobbies?  

We spoke with several youth who are affiliated with NYRA about their experiences. For more perspectives, see how college students have been affected, or read this article about what students are saying about living through a pandemic

Michael, 16, from Michigan, attends a public school. His class’s Spain Trip and orchestra trip were cancelled, but he “absolutely agree[s] with those decisions.” 

“Online school has been great for me,” said Michael, “The workload is quite light for me, I get work on Fridays and I turn in my work the week after on the next Friday. It only takes a day for me because I…have already finished my work-heavy classes for the year.” 

He says that he has more free time and has been sleeping more, but that “my freedom and flexibility are significantly lower” because of the stay at home order. Still, he has been practicing the piano, playing more basketball (“by myself”) than he used to, and also gardening. 

Michael says he is enjoying the light workload, but is disappointed that the sports seasons were cancelled: “I run track and I have some very difficult goals I wanted to accomplish…while it is a shame that track is gone, I am trying to not get too down about it and keep working out for [cross-country]”. 

Ultimately, Michael says he prefers “normal” school: “It has been a bit hard to adjust but not undoable. I really miss hanging out with my friends, and I am really sad to not be able to hang out with my grandparents anymore…also my mom is an essential worker so I am always worried about the disease getting into my home.” 

As for other youths he knows: “My friends are also having similar issues to me. One of my friends got laid off [from work], however, another person I know got a job during the pandemic.” 

Katherine, 17, is an unschooler from Michigan. While she didn’t have a “school” that shut down, her educational experience has still been affected by the wider shut-downs: “The homeschool band I’m part of had to cancel all their events, I can’t go to the local coffee shop to write, and I can’t hang out with my friends offline.” Katherine also discussed how the pandemic has worsened her anxiety, which has limited her ability to be productive even at home. 

Ashawn, a high school student from Boston, says that all of his classes have been online. He’s been interested, but says “I’m more of a hands on…in-class person,” and that “being away from the “usual” is new to me, but I’m adapting everyday… It has been a little difficult to adjust, but I’m managing…I haven’t been doing anything new, just sticking to the same routine trying to keep a balance.” Ashawn says that he has been doing school in the mornings, and working part time. 

As for the pros and cons of online learning: “The best part is that you can be able to organize your time… [the] worst part is that if you organize your time to do a class or two you must do that or you’ll fall behind. I’ve seen other kids not focus on the online classes and their grades have fallen…luckily I make sure to check on them and bother them to make sure they are at least doing one class a day.” 

“It hasn’t really affected my relationships with my close friends…in the slightest…” said Ashawn, “Some of my friends are currently working and some have started to work since COVID-19 hit.”

When asked about how the pandemic and school closures might affect education in the future, Ashawn said that question is hard to answer: “I think we as students should hope for the best and see where it goes…but this definitely has impacted the way all students learn…not just high school students, [but] college students, graduate students and younger kids, so only time will tell.” 

Opening up to the perspectives of students is crucial as we move ahead in a changing educational environment. Continuing the conversation about how different learning environments affect different individuals can help contribute to the design of better education systems that work for more people. Specifically, by returning our focus to the experiences of individuals, we emphasize each student’s talents, interests, and feelings. This, in turn, creates a more humanized society. 

As we transition to summer, conventional schooling students around the country will have a break from their formal education, and educators will be planning for next school year. Going forward, let’s continue this conversation and keep moving towards respectful and collaborative learning spaces that encourage autonomy and growth. 

One Comment

  1. It’s interesting to see new perspectives on this, and what might become of schooling after this COVID-19 business.

    Though I feel that the COVID threat is greatly exaggerated and the lockdown were an overreaction, one good thing is that schools have shut down / adopted new learning models.

    As someone who struggled in school, I definitely have my own objections to the current school system. It’s authoritarian and is hugely responsible for the ADHD, Autism, ODD, and Conduct Disorder fiasco. Simply put, if you can’t sit still and stay in your seat, you’re called a sick person.

    I agree with much of this movement. I hope this lockdown and COVID business will cause a drastic change in the schooling system, something already happening.

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