Poll: Students unhappy with remote and hybrid learning 

Black, Latino, low-income students most likely to be remote 

A NEW POLL released Tuesday confirmed what many students have been saying all along: High school students far prefer to be learning in person than to be in a remote or even a hybrid model. And in many cases, the students for whom remote learning is most challenging – low-income, black, and Hispanic students – are also those most likely to be learning fully remotely.  

“There is a difference in the high school experience for different groups of students,” said Kate Dobin, education team senior program officer at the Barr Foundation, which commissioned the poll of Massachusetts high school students. “Low-income, black and Latino students are feeling less satisfied and feeling like they are falling further behind academically….They’re experiencing this pandemic in inequitable ways, which will compound on the inequities we had in our system before.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in disrupted education for virtually all students. Discussions of school closures have often devolved into a debate between Gov. Charlie Baker – who is pushing districts to reopen – and teachers’ unions, who have maintained it is unsafe for students and staff to return. The new survey does not include any objective measures of student performance. But it does give voice to those most central to the debate: students. 

The findings are a strong indictment of districts’ abilities to successfully teach remotely, or even in the hybrid model many have adopted. 

Stephanie Marken, executive director for education research for Gallup, which did the poll, said already over the summer surveys showed students were struggling to keep up after going remote last spring. “There’s no question the decisions made in the fall were the best decisions people could make at the time…but those decisions do have consequences for those who are most disadvantaged,” Marken said. “Now we’ve got two consecutive semesters in which students are feeling like they’re left behind.” 

The poll was based on responses from 1,000 Massachusetts high school students who were contacted by telephone from November 18 to December 9. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.  

The survey found that half of students prefer full-time in-person learning, while 34 percent prefer hybrid schooling, and just 16 percent prefer remote learning. When students were asked why they preferred in-person learning, the most common answer was they learn more in person, and there are things they cannot learn virtually. 

The preference for in-person learning is borne out throughout the survey. Students learning in person were more likely than remote learners to say teachers were available to help them. They were more motivated to learn and get good grades, felt better prepared to succeed, felt more challenged by schoolwork, and felt more motivated to learn. Hybrid learners tended to fall in between in-person and remote, but attitudes about hybrid learning were often more similar to remote learning. 

For example, 41 percent of students learning fully in person said they learn a lot every day compared to 18 percent of those learning in a hybrid model and 16 percent of those learning remotely.  Pre-pandemic, that figure was 31 percent. Forty-four percent of in-person learners are excited about what they are learning, compared to 17 percent in a hybrid model and 13 percent who are learning remotely.  

“Hybrid students looked in many ways similar to remote learning on many measures we tracked,” Marken said. 

Nikko Kelly, a 15-year-old sophomore from Dorchester who attends Newton North High School through the METCO program and was not involved with the poll, said he likes remote learning because it’s easier. Rather than waking up at 6 a.m. to catch a bus, he sleeps late, since class starts at 9:15 or 10:45 a.m. on his computer. But Kelly says he’s staying up later and not learning as much. “I just lose focus easily when I’m in online school,” Kelly said. 

On the mental health side, the study found that students who are not in school full time are more likely to feel worried or stressed. Hybrid learners reported the highest levels of stress. Higher income students were more likely to feel worried or stressed than lower income students, which Marken said may relate to high-performing students feeling anxious about falling behind academically.  

Nackil Pierre, a tenth grader at Boston Collegiate Charter School who is Haitian-American and not involved with the poll, said in the spring, he was “really stressed out” about the lockdown and remote classes. This year, he felt better, but still found it “weird” meeting teachers online. He thinks he is learning less than if he were in person. Sometimes his internet stops working. He only has three classes per day, and his other teachers leave him homework. He misses the little things, like taking the bus and talking to friends at the water fountain.  

“This has a completely different feel than going to Dunkin’ to get breakfast, and going to class, as opposed to waking up, rolling out of bed, you’re in class,” Pierre said. 

The survey found clear demographic differences. The students most likely to be learning fully remotely were poor and minority students. While very few students are learning fully in person, the poll finds that just 31 percent of students whose families earn more than $120,000 are learning fully remotely, compared to 57 percent of students whose families earn less than $60,000. Wealthier children are more likely to be in a hybrid model. Similarly, white children are more likely to be learning in a hybrid model (63 percent), while at least 55 percent of black and Hispanic children are fully remote. 

Private school students were far more likely to be in school full-time than public school students. 

The disparity could reflect the fact that COVID-19 has hit minority communities hardest. But it is worrying because many of these students are the most likely to struggle with remote learning. Lower income students and black and Hispanic students are less likely to have a reliable internet connection. Lower income students are less likely to talk to their parents about their schoolwork and less likely to have someone home who can help them with technology, the survey found.  

It also has concerning implications for a state already struggling with gaps in achievement between different demographic groups. Poor students were most likely to feel they were falling behind this year, indicating that they will need more help to catch up. Remote learners in 11th and 12th grades were less likely to feel like the school was adequately preparing them for their post-graduation plans than those students spending some time in school.   

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Jaleah Clark, 17, a senior at New Mission High School in Boston who is black and lives in Dorchester, is among those who worry that her experience at the end of high school will hurt her college chances. She said remote schooling has been “a real struggle.”  

According to Clark, her school’s guidance team gave her little help with college applications. Her guidance counselor enrolled her in AP statistics and AP psychology, which Clark struggled to learn remotely because she finds it hard to concentrate over a computer. Clark said she did not need the credits, but the counselor told her to stay in the classes, and her GPA dropped from 3.87 to below 3.4 until her mother interceded, and the school let her drop them. Clark now worries that she will have trouble getting accepted at the colleges of her choice.