WIPPS Research Partners new study sheds light on student concerns about school amid COVID-19

New study offers insight on Marathon County students’ perceptions of returning to school during COVID-19; students express feelings of uncertainty and anxiety about how they will learn and stay socially connected this fall

WIPPS Research Partners spearheads first of its kind focus group study, documenting local student response to learning amid COVID-19. Study offers helpful insight, information to guide administrators and educators.

To date, little has been known about students’ thoughts and concerns about returning to school this fall in a COVID-19 environment. In an effort to fill this information gap and to give students a voice to convey their perspectives and suggestions to school leaders, WIPPS Research Partners conducted five virtual focus groups in August on, “The Voices of Marathon County Students Returning to School During COVID-19.”

A total of 47 county middle and high school students participated in the study from 13 different schools and nine school districts including Athens, Colby, D.C. Everest, D.C. Everest Charter School, Edgar, Mosinee, Newman Catholic, Wausau and Wittenberg.

“What the students shared in these focus groups is compelling, and we hope school leaders and others will find this study relevant to decision-making and planning as the school year unfolds,” said Sharon Belton, director of WIPPS Research Partners and team lead for the study.

Using a comprehensive interview guide, students were asked about a range of topics such as:

  • What concerns and questions do they have about returning to school in the fall?
  • What kinds of information and support do they need?
  • What do they want parents, teachers and administrators to know about how they feel about school this fall?

“Students expressed a sense that decisions about school are being made for them, but without them”, Belton noted. “They want opportunities to engage more directly with school leaders on an ongoing basis. They are very well-informed about COVID-19 and the issues at stake. They want their voices to be heard.”

Key findings from the student focus groups include:

  • Students expressed considerable uncertainty, anxiety and worry about the start of the upcoming school year regardless of their schools’ reopening plan or approach, underscoring the need for more access to counselors and mental health support.
  • While COVID-19 safety concerns were top-of-mind, they shared greater concern about how they will learn and how they will connect with their teachers and fellow students in meaningful ways, especially in remote or virtual settings.
  • They support student learning through a variety of flexible choices and options, including learning on site, which was cited as a high priority for this fall.
  • Many students said a mask policy is essential and sends a signal that schools care about personal safety.
  • The potential loss of sports, clubs, band and extracurricular activities is a significant concern; students hope schools will look for creative solutions rather than cancel these activities outright.
  • Students are frustrated with a lack of direct communication from school leaders about details and specifics of plans for learning this fall.

The report’s findings will be shared with school leaders, parents and community stakeholders across Marathon County, as well as statewide. The study’s findings can apply to schools in general, regardless of location.

WIPPS Research Partners will host a Zoom presentation of the findings on Wednesday, August 26, from 8:30-9:30 am. To register for this presentation, use this Google form: https://forms.gle/v13pJX67oYLenit4A

To view the complete report, click here.

Support for this project was provided by WIPPS Research Partners and the COVID-19 Community Response Fund of the Community Foundation of North Central Wisconsin and the United Way of Marathon County.