Survey: Teen students say remote learning is worse but fear returning

Recent polling done by Common Sense highlights the feelings of those affected most by district decisions to reopen, either online or in person

Decisions about reopening and the learning models that go with them – remote, virtual or hybrid – have largely been in the hands of education leaders and school boards, with input from teachers and parents.

In all of the nationwide debates and discussions, the viewpoints of those who are on the decisive end of those choices, teens, have largely been an afterthought.

What are their concerns and their preferences?

According to a recent poll done by Common Sense/SurveyMonkey, the majority of students 13-17 (59%) say the virtual learning experience is worse than in-person instruction but less than 20% say that schools should return to a fully in-person model, fearing the impact and potential dangers of COVID-19.

From that survey done of 890 teens in late August, students expressed some doubt in their schools’ ability to keep them safe during the pandemic, with only 3 in 10 saying they trust their schools “a lot” and 17% saying they don’t trust them at all. Nearly 70% worry they or someone they know will become ill because of in-class learning environments, with teens of color expressing more concern than White teens.

Those findings – and a myriad of others from the survey – should be considered when schools look at their next steps in their reopening plans, according to those who conducted it.

“It is critical that we hear directly from teens on how they feel about returning to in-class instruction and the impact of online learning during the pandemic,” said James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense. “This is a very complicated issue that not only impacts families and educators but also students themselves in fundamental ways. We’ve heard from parents, teachers, and elected officials on the back-to-school issue, and we hope the voices of teens will be considered, as well.”

Deeper into the numbers

Though an overwhelming 79% of teens would prefer a fully remote or hybrid model, they are not sold on the efficacy of any virtual plan that will be installed at their schools. Despite the fact that 88% say they have the technology to do their work, around half say remote learning could cost them scholarships, job opportunities and potentially damage future ambitions.

“More than any other issue, teens point to remote learning as their biggest academic challenge this fall,” said Jon Cohen, chief research officer at SurveyMonkey. “So much of the national conversation on virtual schooling focuses on the burden it places on parents and corresponding losses in workplace productivity, but it’s possible that the day-to-day impact on students that will have longer-term implications.”

Staying competitive is also a concern for teens, who are worried about the long-term impacts of the pandemic.

A recent study done at the collegiate level by Canvas highlighted that students believe they are falling behind in their studies. That fear is mirrored in the teens who were polled for this survey. Nearly 60% are worried they too will struggle to keep pace academically. Almost half of those who want to return to in-person learning said it’s because they feel the instruction is more effective. According to the study’s authors, “Hispanic and Asian teens or teens of other races/ethnicities are particularly likely to say they are worried about falling behind (79% and 67%, respectively) compared to White teens (55%).”

One of the more surprising statistics from the poll was that the majority of teens surveyed (70%) say they are not concerned about missing social interaction with friends and students.

What are the biggest academic challenges for teens surveyed?

Learning remotely: 42%

Uncertainty of pandemic: 37%

Emotional upheaval: 32%

Being able to access teachers: 32%

Unreliable internet: 27%

Access to books/supplies: 17%

No difference to past years: 12%

Access to devices: 11%

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor with District Administration. He can be reached at

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