The Voices of Wisconsin Students Project: Learning, Coping, and Building Resilience During COVID-19

Project Findings

Project Overview

The Voices of Wisconsin Students Project, conducted by the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service Research Partners (WIPPS Research Partners) and the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW), gathers insight, information, and feedback directly from Wisconsin youth in grades 6 through 12 with a focus on: (1) the nature and intensity of challenges and concerns they are experiencing in the environment of the COVID-19 pandemic; (2) how they are coping; and (3) feedback on how they may be strengthening their resilience during what is, for many, a period of heightened stress, anxiety, and isolation. Funding for this project was provided by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services via grant funds from the Overdose Data to Action (OD2A) cooperative agreement #6NU17CE925003-02-02 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Researchers used focus groups as the method of data collection, with sessions held separately for middle and high school students in January and February 2021. A total of 23 focus groups were conducted with 96 high school students and 64 middle students. By compiling and sharing this information, the voices of Wisconsin students can help policymakers and stakeholders make more informed and targeted decisions about how to support students during these challenging times. This information can also help inform local communities about the need for additional resources to address students’ situations. WIPPS Research Partners was asked to conduct this project by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), with input from representatives from many state and non-governmental entities who serve the educational and mental health needs of Wisconsin’s youth.

Understanding the nature and scope of students’ immediate and ongoing needs is critical to ensuring that plans, programs, and strategies can be most effective and that staffing and/or financial

resources can be targeted in ways that can potentially have the greatest impact now and into the future. For example, the information gathered from this project can help inform discussions about how to support students’ ongoing learning during COVID-19, either virtually, in-person, or in hybrid/blended models, including implications for supporting transitions back to in-person learning or continuing with virtual learning models. In addition, understanding the nature of students’ sources of stress and anxiety, avenues of support, and perceptions of barriers to accessing that support can help organizations make more informed decisions about the allocation of mental health and wellness resources. Students themselves report many examples of positive coping strategies that may provide a foundation for new ideas or plant the seeds for new programs that could benefit students more broadly in the future. So while this project was conducted in the evolving context of COVID-19, the students’ insights and feedback can have implications and value beyond the immediate school year.