The ignored voice

Student opinion has been pushed into the background during the reopening debate

The ignored voice

Steve Draughn and Matthew Zheng

Six months ago, COVID-19 plunged the world into disarray: stores shut down, the employed became the unemployed, and we found ourselves afraid to leave our homes, hoping for a return to normalcy. FCPS closed on March 13th, initializing virtual learning for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. When we students discovered FCPS was offering in-person learning, we were ecstatic. The opportunity to meet teachers and peers—to actually learn—became increasingly palpable each day. Our hopes were struck down on July 21st when the Fairfax County School Board decided to start the 2020-2021 school year 100% online.

For months, we have sat on the sidelines of the reopening debate, trusting adult experts to consider and represent our needs. 

Our trust turned to alarm as we watched parents, politicians, and policymakers on both sides of the issue present generalized, apocryphal assumptions such as “kids just want to go back to school to hang out with their friends” without consulting actual students. We watched them discuss the benefits and difficulties of online schooling without having attended a single virtual class. The truth is, our developmentand our liveshinge on this single school board decision, and yet, it hasn’t sought or paid attention to actual students’ opinions. It is past time that you hear our voice. 

We, too, believed online learning was an adequate substitute to in-person school before enduring it. Experience taught us that our expectations were naïve, at best. 

Imagine poring over a buffering school laptop, your teacher asking, “did you guys hear that?” after every sentence as you squint at a pixelated whiteboard, frantically texting the class group chat every time you misunderstand a sentence. Imagine slamming your hand against your desk, pangs of sympathy and frustration coursing through you because your exasperated teacher, onerously fighting the inefficiencies of online learning, had to extend class from forty-five to seventy minutes, but, somehow, you only experienced a mere ten minutes of meaningful instruction. Imagine the itch of suspicion, fearing that your classmates could easily cheat, taking advantage of the lack of accountability built into online schooling, nullifying the hours you spent to learn the material. 

Now imagine adults around us presuming to speak for us, trying to understand our experiences and mindset without actually asking usthe very people this system serves.

However, even in the rare case when online learning works perfectly, even if every student connects to class without difficulty and every teacher never cuts out, the cold, hard truth is that online learning removes the valuable lessons taught by in-person school, leaving us with a deficient substitute. A Brown University study recently found that students from the third to the eighth grade could return to school with “63-68% of the learning gains in reading” compared to a  typical school year, and “less than 37-50% of the gains” in mathematics.1 Annenberg Institute at Brown University – “Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement” We lost the latter end of the 2019-2020 school year, and withholding education even further is doing us a great disservice, allowing our already limited gains in knowledge to dissolve irreparably. 

Learning losses will be so overwhelming that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Robert Redfield issued a statement asserting that “having the schools actually closed is a greater public health threat to the children than having the schools reopen.”2 The Hill – “CDC director: Keeping schools closed poses greater health threat to children than reopening” Our education should be at the forefront of the reopening debate, yet it has been underplayed and pushed into the background. 

Yet another aspect of virtual learning that has been largely ignored by politicians is the damage that virtual learning will have, and has already had, on student mental health. Every day, we struggle through the pandemic, and every day the endpoint we yearn for becomes increasingly intangible. A study on the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of youths by the US National Library of Medicine concluded “children and adolescents are probably more likely to experience high rates of depression and probably anxiety during and after enforced isolation ends,” which could increase with extended isolation.3 US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health – “Rapid Systematic Review: The Impact of Social Isolation and Loneliness on the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents in the Context of COVID-19” 

Further, the one outlet students had — accessible, in-person counseling — has now disappeared. The value of being able to always confide in a trusted adult in-person, behind closed doors, cannot be underestimated. Suicide is already the second leading cause of death for Americans aged ten to fourteen and fifteen to twenty-four, taking 6,807 Americans aged twenty-four and younger in 2018,44 CDC – “10 Leading Causes of Death by Age Group, United States – 2018” National Institute of Mental Health – “Leading Cause of Death in the United States (2017)”[/mfn] and revoking in-person counseling through isolation will only exacerbate this issue. Politicians, administrators, and our school board must examine the mental impact of virtual learning with the same priority and rigor as the physical impact of in-person education.

One of the most infuriating aspects of the adult policymakers’ assumptions about our mindset is how much they overlook the value of in-person education to us beyond merely “wanting to hang out with friends.” Whenever we step through the double doors of Langley High School, belonging and familiarity envelops us as we gaze at the green and gold mural proudly exhibiting “WE ARE ALL SAXONS.” Although each Langley student is distinct, we unite to mourn blowout athletic defeats, to support one another through stressful assignments, and to applaud each others’ accomplishments in extracurricular activities. 

We all look forward to Mr. Robertson’s highly-anticipated corny jokes and the revealing of the Senior of the Month on the morning announcements. Our diligent teachers are always at our side to uplift us during our struggles; our energetic classrooms inculcate dedication and a passion for learning, all while encouraging friendship as well. Every day, organic hallway discussions, Socratic seminars, and lunchroom debates between inspired students provide a unique medium for learning beyond our standard curriculum. Even if it is just making eye contact above the lines of our masks, it is in such desperate times that we need our community the most, knowing we will persevere and prevail together.

The world, Fairfax County included, has disregarded the student voice for too long. Our grievances and anecdotesour truthshould be an essential factor in policymaking, not an afterthought (or worse, a non-factor). Reopening schools should not be a political issue, but a discussion with compromise, explanation, and thoughtful consideration of student opinion. We urge Fairfax County to remember we are not a mass of servile subjects but individual students whom its decisions directly affect.