Since schools first closed their doors more than a year ago, many students have felt adrift. But many LGBTQ students in particular have missed the sense of community that school provided them prior to the pandemic.
“School is kind of a place where my queerness is able to manifest itself,” said Nic Oke, a high school junior in Maryland who has been learning remotely since last March. “Not having that escape of school where I can feel a bit more comfortable to express myself has been a bit difficult.”
Oke, age 17 and a member of the national student council for the nonprofit GLSEN, is out as bisexual to his mom, but not to the rest of his family. He misses the socialization and support he received from his LGBTQ peers at school, especially in their diversity club—and that’s not uncommon for students these days, educators and advocates say.
“Schools are the most affirming environment that most LGBTQ youth have in their lives,” said Amy Green, the vice president of research for the Trevor Project, a national group providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ young people. “That’s because of the people who are there: the teachers, the school nurses, the counselors, their friends. Folks who allow them the ability to be themselves.”
Yet by December 2020, about a third of school districts were still closed for in-person instruction. While some districts have since reopened their classroom doors this spring, others remain closed for what has now been more than a full year. Even in districts that have restarted in-person instruction, often the high schools remain closed or are only open a couple days a week.
While some LGBTQ students have enjoyed remote learning or found solace in not having to go into school buildings, it has left others without a place to be fully themselves.
Not being able to see your fellow LGBTQ students disrupts the community that LGBTQ youth build to survive, frankly.
Survey data show that while the pandemic and its impact on schools have taken a toll on most teenagers, they have especially affected those who identify as LGBTQ. A nationally representative survey of 2,000 high school students, conducted by the EdWeek Research Center between Jan. 29 and Feb. 11, found that 83 percent of LGBTQ teenagers said they are experiencing more problems in school than they did before the pandemic, compared to 69 percent of heterosexual high schoolers.
Even before the pandemic, LGBTQ youth experienced symptoms of depression at greater rates than their heterosexual peers. Now, 30 percent of LGBTQ students said they feel too sad or down to focus on instruction, compared to 12 percent of heterosexual students, the survey found. LGBTQ students are also about twice as likely to say they are feeling physical symptoms of illness during class time, such as stomachaches or headaches, and that they’re distracted by anxieties, worries, and fears. They’re getting less sleep and are more likely to feel tired during class.
Also, 22 percent of LGBTQ students said their relationships with members of their family are more negative now than in January 2020. Only 12 percent of heterosexual students said the same.
“[Some] kids are not out [at home] at all, or are in environments where they know they can’t be safe,” said Amber Andrade, the principal at Paradise Valley Engineering Academy in Morgan Hill, Calif.
When educators have strong relationships with their LGBTQ students, they can be a supportive ear for problems at home, she added.
Making sure students have access to mental health support
Before taking the helm of her current elementary school in the fall, Andrade was a middle school principal and involved in the school’s club for LGBTQ students and allies. She has stayed in touch with several of her former students and has been texting them throughout the pandemic. Some are lonely, and Andrade will periodically check in, often sending them a positive quote. Others will message her about their problems at home, and Andrade will send them resources, including the phone number to a crisis text hotline.
“That’s something parents aren’t really paying attention to—[it looks like] they’re just texting a friend, but they could be texting a counselor,” she said.
Text lines may be a particularly useful resource for LGBTQ teenagers, since just 17 percent said their school counseling program has helped them “a lot” when they used it, according to the EdWeek survey. Yet nearly half of LGBTQ students say they have felt like they needed mental health services both now and before the pandemic. Heterosexual students were more likely to say they have never felt like they needed those services or did for the first time during the pandemic.
Among the students who said they needed mental health counseling but didn’t utilize those services at their school, 27 percent of LGBTQ teenagers said it was because they didn’t trust the programs at school. Only 16 percent of heterosexual teenagers said the same.
Many LGBTQ students, especially those who are transgender or nonbinary, are afraid that school counselors won’t accept them for who they are and won’t understand them, Green said. She hears from teenagers who say, “I’m afraid that if I went, they’d try to change me. They’d try to convert me.”
“There’s a lot of mistrust and fear among LGBTQ youth,” she said.
That’s why it’s important for educators to signal that they’re supportive and accepting, advocates say. The typical signs in classrooms—like a Safe Space sticker or a pride flag—are less obvious when students are remote. But there are still ways to make virtual spaces more inclusive.
For instance, Andrade said educators should make sure students have the ability to change their video display names during remote learning, so that transgender students don’t have to be identified by their name assigned at birth if it no longer applies to them. And there should be a place for students to add their pronouns, if they want to, which teachers can signal by adding their own pronouns to their video display. (In a normal school year, students could introduce themselves on their own terms, rather than potentially be misgendered by a preset video display name, Andrade said.)
When teaching remotely for the first few weeks of the year, Christine Rockwell-Wardlow, a high school English teacher, hung a digital pride flag in her Bitmoji classroom, asked all students their pronouns, developed a set of supportive classroom norms with her students, and referenced her wife in class discussions. And Rockwell-Wardlow began the year by teaching the nonfiction book, A Queer History of the United States for Young People.
“It’s a really big deal if you’re a gay teenager and you rarely see your experiences reflected in history or the reading you do,” said Rockwell-Wardlow, who teaches at the Marine Academy of Science and Technology in Highlands, N.J., which is now open for hybrid instruction.
Rockwell-Wardlow’s school incorporates social justice into its student learning standards, she said, so she feels empowered to weave LGBTQ issues throughout her curriculum.
She also made sure to utilize breakout rooms during virtual class discussions, so students could work in small groups with peers of their choice to help recreate some of the social opportunities that have been lost this school year. “You just have to make sure you’re proactive as a teacher,” she said about making her LGBTQ students feel supported.
Bullying rates decline, but cyberbullying still a concern
Of course, school isn’t a safe space for all LGBTQ students, and some have enjoyed remote learning, either for academic reasons or as a reprieve from the social anxieties of school.
For instance, Andrade said, some transgender and nonbinary students are now relieved they can go to the bathroom without it being a source of anxiety or a potential way to be misgendered. And for some LGBTQ students, school closures have provided some escape from bullying. EdWeek’s survey found that 44 percent of LGBTQ students said they are bullied, harassed, or teased harshly by classmates either in person or online less now than before the pandemic.
Still, nearly 1 in 5 said they are bullied or harassed more now than before, and 30 percent of LGBTQ students said their relationships with their classmates are more negative now, compared to 19 percent of heterosexual students.
“Youths are spending a lot more time on the internet, interacting with peers. … Unfortunately, there can be a lot of hate online and bullying and harassment,” said Green of the Trevor Project.
And while there are many supportive communities for LGBTQ teenagers and young people online, some students can’t access those from their homes because they either don’t have internet access or their parents restrict or monitor their internet usage, said Bex Mui, the education manager at GLSEN, a national nonprofit dedicated to supporting LGBTQ students.
Yet for those students who can freely access the internet, online communities have been a saving grace while schools are closed.
During remote learning, Oke, the high school junior in Maryland, started a virtual book club called Untold Stories, where participants read short stories by an LGBTQ author or a person of color. “We don’t get that in our curriculum” at school, Oke said, adding that he has expanded the club membership beyond his school to any young person who wants to attend.
And this past fall, Cody Miller, an assistant professor of English education at SUNY Brockport, started a virtual LGBTQ youth book club with shea martin, a literacy educator and professional development facilitator who styles their name in lower case. The pair accepted about 140 high school students from across the country into the club, called Love and LiteraTea, and divided them into three cohorts to discuss literature and anything else that’s on their minds. (Miller and martin have since opened up applications to 8th graders, too.)
This year, the teenagers are reading six books about LGBTQ characters and issues, including Like a Love Story, a young adult novel set in New York City at the peak of the AIDS crisis, and The Black Flamingo, a coming-of-age story told in verse. Miller and martin crowdfunded enough money to send each student the books and to pay for some of the authors and other LGBTQ writers to speak to the students.
“The books are important, but it’s really more about community,” Miller said. With remote learning, he added, LGBTQ students are “often cut off from resources at school—and sometimes, that resource can just be being with their friends. … Not being able to see your fellow LGBTQ students disrupts the community that LGBTQ youth build to survive, frankly.”
Said Oke: “Students of all identities are really going through it right now. ... I would want [teachers] to really put themselves in our shoes and try to be as much of a support system as you possibly can.”
Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2021 edition of Education Week as When Schools Go Remote, Many LGBTQ Students Lose a Safe Space