The Voices of Wisconsin Students Project – Final Reports Released

The Voices of Wisconsin Students Project offers new insight on students’ experiences with learning, coping, and building resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic

Statewide focus groups document Wisconsin students’ struggles and how they are adapting

Wisconsin students have faced many challenges over the past year, and they have a lot to say about the nature of their struggles with learning, their mental health, overcoming obstacles, and building resilience, according to new findings of the Voices of Wisconsin Students Project released by the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service (WIPPS) Research Partners and the Medical College of Wisconsin – Central Wisconsin.

Students from across Wisconsin were given the opportunity to participate in virtual focus groups with other students from across the state, where they voiced key insights on how they are coping with the challenges of school, learning, and life in general during the COVID-19 pandemic. In total, 160 middle and high school students participated in one of 23 focus groups hosted by WIPPS Research Partners in January and February 2021. The student participants were from 68 different communities, spanning 38 Wisconsin counties and attend 96 different public, private, and parochial schools. Together with their peers, the students discussed a range of topics, including their experiences with school and their learning environments; levels of stress and anxiety; perceptions of drug and alcohol use; barriers to accessing mental health and wellness resources; new coping skills; and the support they need from school leaders moving forward.

The findings were compiled into separate reports for middle and high school students. Key findings from the high school student focus group report include the following:

  • Many of the students reported experiencing high, and increasing, levels of stress, anxiety, and in some cases, depression during the pandemic. For some, COVID-19 has exacerbated their existing mental health challenges.
  • Many of the students perceive increases in the use of drugs, alcohol, and vaping products among their peers as ways to cope with stress, anxiety, boredom, and isolation during the pandemic.
  • Many of the students described significant challenges with virtual learning environments; these challenges contribute to their stress and anxiety.
  • The cancellation of sports, clubs, band, choir, performing arts, and other extracurricular activities is noted as a significant loss for many students. Overwhelmingly, they miss their friends and opportunities to socialize. Many expressed a lack of connectedness to their school, teachers, and friends. This was more pronounced for the students in virtual learning environments.
  • The students identified their teachers as playing an especially important role in helping them feel more connected to their school and peers and a greater sense of belonging. Students’ expectations of teachers in terms of providing leadership, reassurance, and support may be even more pronounced during COVID-19, especially for virtual learners.
  • The students generally struggled to identify school-based or other resources available to help them with mental health concerns; many expressed trying to cope on their own. The students identified stigma, skepticism, self-reliance, and concerns about confidentiality as barriers to accessing mental health and wellness resources.
  • Despite significant challenges, students are finding the silver-linings, reasons to be positive, and many have developed a greater self-awareness. Students have developed new coping skills and ways to feel more resilient. They could point to many things they had learned about themselves during the pandemic that will help them be better students in the future.

The report’s findings will be shared with organizations, agencies, and community stakeholders across Wisconsin.

“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 can be targeted in ways that can potentially have the greatest impact now and into the future,” said Sharon Belton, director of WIPPS Research Partners. “Hearing directly from students – in their own words – about their sources of stress and anxiety, how their learning environments are impacting them, and what kinds of resources they need is powerful and can help organizations make more informed decisions about how to support them.”

WIPPS Research Partners will host a Zoom presentation of the project findings on Wednesday, May 5, from 3:30-4:30 pm. To register for this presentation:

For more information about the project, visit WIPPS Research Partners at:

To access the reports directly, see the links to individual reports below:

The Voices of Wisconsin Students is a project conducted by WIPPS Research Partners and the Medical College of Wisconsin – Central Wisconsin. It was supported by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) with funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was developed with input from many partners including representatives of the DHS, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health, and the University of Wisconsin – Extension.

For questions, please contact:
Sharon E. Belton, Ph.D.
Director – WIPPS Research Partners
Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service