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Student Thoughts on Student Success

If you’re a student today, it’s easy to feel like every academic term brings a new, history-making event. But COVID is in its own category. The pandemic has upended the educational landscape in huge and novel ways. The ncIMPACT Initiative team recently took some time to speak directly with students about the changing nature of school and youth engagement, and to learn more about the path they see ahead.

Perhaps more than any other sector of public life, COVID-19 has deeply shaken our schools. With students and teachers thrown abruptly into a virtual learning environment, separated from the familiar and forced to adapt to a new way of learning and teaching, we’re still trying to figure out exactly what the long-term impacts of this shift will be.

The ncIMPACT Initiative team spent some time in mid-November 2021 with our state’s young leaders at the North Carolina Association of Student Councils Central District Conference, talking with them about the broader effects of COVID-19 across the state and getting their take on how we  move forward from the pandemic. We share below some of our takeaways from these conversations.

L-R: ncIMPACT Initiative director Anita Brown-Graham, UNC MPA student Patrick Bradey, UNC undergrad student Caitlin Lancaster, and UNC MPA student Charlie Chapman at the North Carolina Association of Student Councils Central District Conference.


Students are savvy consumers of the news

While the pandemic has dominated the airwaves and the headlines for more than a year now, students are paying attention not just to case rates and mask mandates, but the second and third order effects of business closures, job losses, hospitalizations, and more.

For many students, this focus on the impacts of the pandemic are very personal. COVID-19 has forced them to contend with multiple impacts on their own lives, or they have witnessed friends or family members being affected, from school closures, to unemployment, to classroom vitriol over pandemic politics.


They are worried about the widening cracks throughout the educational pipeline and beyond

 Many of the students expressed concern over learning loss among their peers, a significant consequence of the pandemic that is far from being fully calculated or understood. Data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, for instance, show declines in end-of-grade performance for third through eighth graders in both reading and math. In some cases, the percentage of students performing at or above grade level dropped by 20 and even 30 points. Student leaders also expressed concern for how losses would affect their and their peers’ ability to score as high as they would like (or need to) on end of grade standardized testing, as well as on college admissions exams.

Data drawn from end-of-grade tests administered by the NC Department of Public Instruction.


Others noted how the conversation around COVID-based learning loss had shifted attention away from other important topics. They specifically cited career preparedness, automation and the changing nature of work, and early college and trade skill programs as things they noticed receiving less emphasis now that they feel pushed to catch up to where they were before, rather than looking ahead to what’s next.


They are solution-oriented, driven by a desire for equity, and not shying away from complex issues

Outpacing their worries, however, were their ideas on how to move past them. Students pitched varied, high-level policy solutions to the wide-ranging problems they saw as emerging in especially sharp focus from the pandemic. Ranging from paid family leave, housing affordability policies, infrastructure modernization and sustainability, and improved wages and working conditions, the avenues they identified as paths ahead for our communities were direct responses to some of the data underlying drivers of change discussed earlier in our conversation. At the center of these drivers was a concern for slowing or stopping widening inequality. The big question for these student leaders was, “How can we help make sure that already vulnerable communities don’t fall further behind due to the pandemic, both in school and in the workplace?”


Student leaders hope to see enhanced in-school support systems and wraparound services

Recognizing that students have differing needs for support, the student leaders noted the need for in-school support systems and wraparound services that protect vulnerable populations from falling behind their peers and help prevent the kind of social disruption that took such a heavy toll on students’ mental health during school closures. They also noted the importance of career and technical education to prepare students for post-secondary prospects, especially as the dynamics of the labor market continue to shift with the impacts of COVID-19.

Photo credit: Princeville Elementary School, Edgecomb County, North Carolina


The students also saw a greater role for themselves in supporting their peers. Peer tutoring, scheduling club events at more accessible times, and school-based efforts to promote empathy and respect for one another were all identified as immediate areas of opportunity for their direct action.

That desire to jump in and get to work was woven throughout our conversation with these student leaders who are living out many of these broader trends. Their experiences are both unique to each individual and their circumstance, and universal among so many growing up in the age of COVID-19. These students are already thinking strategically about solutions and taking action to bring their communities together–whether that is as small as a schoolyard or as big as the whole state. When the time comes for them to take the reins as leaders in government, businesses, and nonprofits, they’ll be ready, and North Carolina will be in capable hands.

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