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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

This Is What Students Want Us to Know About Pandemic Learning

By Peter DeWitt — May 03, 2020 11 min read
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(Update: 05/09/2020. Finding Common Ground Vlog added at end of blog).

“Those of you quarantined without kids, how is it? Is it relaxing? Are there naps? Can you just do what you want all day? Talk dirty to me, tell me about the good times...” Long Island, N.Y., parent, Nicole Bruno.

We are not engaged in a virtual learning experience. It has been more accurately referred to as pandemic learning. To be clear, virtual learning takes place when teachers, leaders, and students can reflect on the best options to engage virtually and then go through a process where they learn what works and what does not. There is a great deal of planning and preparation that goes into virtual learning. Pandemic learning is when the opportunity for virtual learning is created overnight. The luxury of time to reflect on what works and what doesn’t work is nonexistent.

However, now that we are more than six weeks into it, teachers have gone through the 5 stages of grief. As we know, this is not a linear process, and we all take one step forward and two steps back. However, as hard as it may be, we have to find a way to keep making our way, albeit sometimes crawling like we are in one of those mud runs, toward acceptance. Besides finishing out the school year this way, and talking about virtual/pandemic summer school, we may be in this for the opening of the school year. Whatever the decision, we know we will be required to wear masks.

OK, kids. Grab your coats and zip them up. Don’t forget your face mask!”

For additional clarity, most parents and caregivers are not home schooling. Home schooling is when those groups make a conscious choice to teach their children at home, and it often comes because of a fear for safety, religious reasons, or when parents are not content with the education their child is receiving in their local public school. What is happening now is a cross between home schooling and being a conduit of learning. That conduit of learning that parents are involved in is between the assignments teachers provide and making sure their children are engaging in the completion of those assignments.

Perhaps we can refer to it as pandemic home schooling?

Student Surveys
Over the last week (April 26th - May 2nd), I surveyed over 100 K-12 students in several countries (U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia). They were asked to answer 15 questions on Survey Monkey. The K-2 students were assisted by their parents, and all of the students seemed to be very open and honest with their responses. We are sometimes quick to think that students in one country may have a different experience than students in other countries, but many of the students cited the same issues regardless of their country of origin.

One thing to keep in mind before we dive into the comments by students is that the greater public is learning more and more about student home lives (many teachers knew these issues already). What makes pandemic learning harder is to know that not every student has enough to eat every day, and they do not have the means to recreate famous art like some families are doing. Some of the issues our students in the U.S. are facing are:

  • 10 million do not have access to a laptop (Common Sense Media).
  • Close to 30 million students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch and need breaks to go to school to pick up their lunch.
  • Students are taking care of their siblings as their parents are essential workers and lack other child-care options.
  • They are struggling with virtual learning and do not always know how to connect.
  • They live in cities where city buses are being used to create hotspots for 2 hours a day so they can get online.

Overall, the students surveyed wanted us to know that they understand that this remote learning experience is new for their teachers, but they also want us to understand that this experience is new for them as well. They answered honestly about how long it took them to do assignments, and whether they thought those assignments were engaging or not. Many responded that they missed their teachers and friends, and valued the Zoom or Google meetings where they had the opportunity to interact with their friends and teachers.

The following are the responses to questions and answers to 7 of the questions. In coming blog posts I will highlight some of the other questions.

The following location, best describes the location of my school district

How much time do you spend a day engaged in virtual learning?
The graph below illustrates the amount of time students responded they were engaged in virtual learning. Most students answered they spent between 2 and 3 hours doing virtual schoolwork.

What has been the hardest part about virtual learning?
Students were provided with several options and were given the opportunity to check all that apply.

As you can see, the assignments were cited as the hardest part, and how often they are asked to hand in assignments was cited as another reason. Many students indicated there were other reasons virtual learning is hard and then voiced their opinions. Some of those opinions shared are:

  • Sharing a laptop with my sister.
  • Missing my friends and teacher. And gym, lunch and recess.
  • I haven’t been able to learn new material.
  • Feeling alone and not seeing class friends.
  • Making myself do it.
  • To not work with my peers in person.
  • Getting it all done.
  • Staying engaged in the learning.
  • Not exactly sure what is expected. When and how to turn into assignments.

What has been your favorite virtual learning lesson?
Students who responded stated that they have had some favorite lessons. Some of these lessons focused on a fun activity, while others focused on some sort of content the students enjoyed, and then a few focused on the fact that they haven’t been engaged in real learning yet.

  • History because she used videos lecture and we didn’t take a lot of notes anymore and she used quizlet for our tests.
  • Geography, as it was clear and easy to understand through a computer unlike statistics and economics.
  • Science, because she still does experiments.
  • Directed Draw and Boom cards that we share as a team (example here).
  • Math, because it’s virtually interactive
  • Math class on Google Classroom because I saw my teacher and friends. I loved talking and answering questions.
  • My school hasn’t had a virtual lesson yet because the school doesn’t have enough money to give every student a laptop to have lessons or the bandwidth to supply all of them. Therefore, I have been “reviewing using USA Test Prep,” which in my opinion is wasting my time and has not been helpful.
  • A science lesson for solids, liquids, and gases where we made crayons.

What is something you are doing now as a virtual learner that you hope you will be able to do next year when you are back at school?
This is a question that came up on a few of the teaching during the pandemic Facebook pages, and I thought it would be interesting to ask students. Their answers were:

  • Make-up snow days at home.
  • Google Classroom, and working at my own pace.
  • Doing hands-on projects and painting. Then sharing them to classmates.
  • I like to write stories and do Google presentations.
  • Watching the teacher in a short session.
  • Take more breaks and have more choices.
  • Having more teachers —specialists coming to my virtual classroom regularly.
  • Not relying on other students for help with understanding the lessons.
  • Doing things at my own pace and not needing to wait for other kids.
  • Sleep later and learning in a relaxed environment.

How often does your teacher ask you what you want to learn?
This question was also inspired by a teacher question on a pandemic page, so I thought I would ask students their perspective. As we scramble to find engaging activities and dive into review learning, sometimes we forget that we can ask students how and what they would like to learn. The following graph shows their responses.

What do you want your teacher to know, from a student perspective?
This last question actually came from students. When doing the preliminary questions to gain a sense of whether students understood them or not, I asked students to provide some sample questions they wished I asked, and this was one of them. Following are some of the answers:

  • Be clear and go slow
  • We are getting used to the new learning technology just as you are, so while you may not be familiar with certain programs, we may not be either.
  • It’s hard and lonely
  • We need both face-to-face and online learning.
  • I want to be back in school.
  • I miss my teacher.
  • Zoom meeting with all students to ask questions are good because many of us have the same questions and we can get an explanation from you.
  • I miss you. I miss your hugs and asking questions. I cannot do that with virtual learning—there is no interaction with my teacher.
  • It’s not bad .. .it’s just very hard especially when a new unit starts.
  • Because our county isn’t allowing the teaching of new material, all this review seems pointless.
  • It’s very boring just listening to people talk for an hour.
  • We enjoyed our classes online. It truly was less distracting. Able to focus better in areas.
  • They forget that we are not just in their class and that every teacher is giving the same amount of work as them because they are no longer talking with each other as much. They also forget that not every kid has the same resources and access to things. I would love more choice in assignments.

In the End
Right now, many schools do not require grades. The type of accountability we are used to in most schools may not be existent right now, and we have some time to explore more creative options to learning. Students are asking for clear success criteria, the option to explore the learning in their own ways, and the need to do more virtual meetings where they can see their teachers and friends.

Every day teachers and leaders have to dig deep and work hard to figure out how to move forward. The student perspective in all of this is vitally important. Due to the fact that pandemic learning is nowhere near the same as face-to-face learning (and it never will be), there is a need on the part of some to get the rest of the year over and move on to summer. The reality is that for students, the end of the school year is 4 weeks or even 8 weeks away, and they are required to be engaged in online learning for that duration. We all feel like we are in Dr. Seuss’ Waiting Place, but what teachers and leaders do right now matters a great deal. We will get through this difficult time, and we will appreciate deeply when we can all get back together.

The following questions have been created to help teachers and leaders reflect on their actions. The questions were inspired by several pandemic teacher pages on Facebook, and came up often enough that they seem to be needed for conversations.

Questions for Teachers to ponder:

  • How do I utilize the Goldilocks’ Principle with assignments. Meaning not too long, not too short, but just right?
  • If I am only allowed to focus on review material, how do I offer surface, deep, and transfer-level learning with students?
  • Can I offer more conceptual-understanding assignments? Here is a Facebook Live interview with Julie Stern, a consultant and author of conceptual understanding, and a mother of two small boys.
  • How am I able to take breaks during the day and go outside to breathe? Pandemic teaching is hard, and I need to give myself permission to get up from the table or my desk.
  • Have I created (and am I allowed) a work schedule that I can stick to? I started this pandemic by answering emails and making phone calls at all hours of the day, but now I’m burned out and families and students do not see my boundaries because I have not set any. What can I do to set up those boundaries?
  • Out of the survey questions and responses I just read in the blog, which positive answers are actions I’m taking already? Have I given myself permission to celebrate those successes?
  • Out of the survey questions and responses I just read in the blog that offer critical feedback in an area I may need to improve on, what is the first step I can take during that improvement?
  • If I am struggling with pandemic teaching, are there any groups I can tap into that might help me?
  • How often do I ask my students about their pandemic learning experience and how we can improve it?
  • If we do ask for the student perspective, have we asked them for sample questions they would like to be asked about pandemic learning?

Questions for school leaders to ponder:

  • What guidance on pandemic learning have I provided to your teachers and staff?
  • How often do I hold virtual staff meetings so they can see my face and ask questions or make comments?
  • If I have offered guidance on pandemic learning, how have I shared those expectation with families? Is it on our district and building webpages, Facebook page, and being delivered in newsletters and emails?
  • Have I suggested to teachers that they can do more by providing less? That instead of quatity they can take the time to provide quality work that will allow for surface, deep and transfer level learning?
  • Have I told teachers they can encourage students to show their work through creative means such as videos, Sketchnotes and other projects?
  • Have I suggested to teachers to create daily schedules that provide them the time to breathe, where they can turn off their computer at a certain time in the afternoon without feeling as though they are required to work 12 to 16 hours a day?


Teachers, please take a few moments to fill out this survey that focuses on your experience with pandemic learning.

Parent of a K-12 student? Please consider having each child fill out this student survey.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is the author of several books including his newest release Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (Corwin Press. 2020). Connect with him on Twitter or through his YouTube channel.

Opening picture courtesy of Getty Images.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.