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Covid’s impact on school: stressed students unable to focus

Students sit apart on Harvard's campus. (Katrina Machetta/YJI)

Wreaking havoc with young lives, the coronavirus pandemic upended school routines across the globe, leaving students unmotivated, anxious and without access to critical materials.

In wide-ranging interviews with Youth Journalism International, young people who attended brick-and-mortar schools saw their education shift from in-person to entirely virtual, producing a variety of emotions.

“I struggle with focusing. I can’t focus normally, so me sitting by myself, not in a school environment, it’s not good,” said 16-year-old Karolyn Morris of Suffolk, Virginia. “When I’m at home, and not with other people, it all feels like it’s blending together, and I don’t have the strength to get work done.” 

Trouble concentrating in online classes may be universal. 

Schooling at home took away a big advantage of in-person learning: amotivation to focus. Studying in a classroom with hardworking peers and teachers created an atmosphere for productivity, while students found themselves with a lax attitude studying alone in their rooms. 

Maryam Azimpour, 18, of Tehran, Iran, said a classroom atmosphere motivated her to study. Without it – even with online learning – it’s hard.

“I think that I may have some academic failure,” Azimpour said.

Seventeen-year-old Aaron Foster of Bexley, a borough of London, said he can’t focus at home so online classes have had a large negative impact.

Taylor Helwig, 14, of Ontario, Canada, said that because there is no immediate reward in virtual schooling, she’s less motivated and the quality of her work is suffering.

Taylor Helwig

Vedat Burak Sanel, a 17-year-old in Istanbul said that he doesn’t care as much about his classes anymore.

“When I went to school, I was able to concentrate on the lessons, but now that there is no school, I can’t concentrate at all,” Sanel said.

Dhekra Abbessi, 19 of Soussa, Tunisia, a first-year university student, said there is stress from the accumulated tests and quizzes that can’t be taken online.

Dhekra Abbesi

That is on top of the worries about health and safety in a pandemic, Abbessi said.

Eighteen-year-old Sevgi Eda Keskin, a high school senior in Istanbul said about half her class is struggling psychologically, and spoke about the uncertainty of the education system during the pandemic .

“A lot of people stopped studying,” said Keskin. “You can’t physically talk to the teachers, go to the library, so a lot of people give up.”

The education change created by covid-19 also negatively impacted at least one student who was already studying online.

As an online school student since before the pandemic, 17-year-old Aliyah Kassam of North London Collegiate School in England said she has recently been feeling “more anxious and stressed” because they’ll be covering significantly less coursework than usual.

Nicolle DeGroft

Nicolle DeGroft, 17, of Suffolk, Virginia, said she needs the structure of school to force herself to do things, even just to get out of bed.

Stephanie Connell, 12, of Melbourne, Australia, said she was coping pretty well with online learning, but missed face-to-face interactions with her teachers because she has a lot of questions.

Students also said the virtual setting prevented them from exploring a wide range of learning resources.

Samir Kowcun, 19, of Wellingborough, England, said he had “only been given an extra week to complete all my essays” and did not have access to any classroom instruction or libraries. Working at home online with no one around to help feels less productive, Kowcun said.

“Even when they have offered support like emails and video calls, it’s much harder to organize,” said Kowcun.

Classes that involve a great deal of hands-on learning like biology and theater were especially affected.

Katrina Machetta/YJI

“The pandemic has negatively impacted my lab classes, but the rest of my classes stayed fairly consistent,” Sarai Deese, 17, of Charlotte, North Carolina said.

Jomel Goh, 18, who studies at the School of the Arts in Singapore, said that “not having access to studio space and materials can be difficult,” especially when working with large materials like wood and metal.

Assignment deadlines vary in the virtual schooling system, with each teacher setting different due dates and expectations. Varying amounts of homework and overwhelming deadlines for assignments are also factors that have contributed to student stress. 

Reem Fayed

“At school, it was like, you have to turn this assignment in, and it has to be at a certain time. So that would motivate me to do things, ‘cause I have to turn everything in on time,” said 16-year-old Reem Fayed of Mechanicsville, Virginia.

“I think they’re giving us an unhealthy amount of work. All classes want us to do something and it’s just too much of a workload,” said Morris, the student in Suffolk, Virginia.

“Lessons, performance tasks, quizzes and the periodicals were rushed, and I couldn’t really catch up with the sudden change of pace. I really did a bad performance in my fourth quarter,” said Jonas Joi B. Amparo of Tagbilaran City in the Philippines.

Some students have fuzzy helpers at home. (Bilge Nur Güven/YJI)

Though the majority of students didn’t like the shift to online school, a few found a silver lining.

Confusion and an abrupt change of pace in online schooling caused some students to fall behind.

Chambie Elliott

“In some ways, schooling from home has been more effective,” said 15-year-old Chambie Elliott of Klein, Texas.

“I’m learning a lot because the curriculum takes you step by step and works through each lesson meticulously,” said Elliott. “At the same time, it takes a lot of discipline and persistence to go through everything. I can understand, though, why some students might not be getting work done when there is a room of other things to do.”

Some youth enjoy the ability to learn at their own pace, which is sometimes possible in an online classroom.

Others cited improvements in their personal lives, mainly newfound time to pursue other hobbies and activities.

“It gives me enough free time to do the things that I wasn’t used to doing,” said 21-year-old Sanya Zardkanlu of Bojnurd, Iran, like reading books.

Li Zing Yi, 15, of Beijing said virtual school offers interaction with teachers and fellow students, but in a more relaxed way.

Juan Esteban Riofrío

“I prefer online classes to regular ones because there’s less pressure and stress put on us. Typically, the Chinese school system is really competitive and stressful. Because there’s so many people in China, we have to compete for spots, I normally have to stay up until 12 a.m. with homework. There’s a test every week, and right now I’m preparing for my high school entrance exams,” Yi said.

Despite the fact the pandemic brought massive changes to the way the educational system operates, for some students the impact was minimal. 

Maisy Davidson, 17, of London said the changes aren’t drastic and in many cases, she is able to teach herself.

Seventeen-year-old Juan Esteban Riofrío of Quito, Ecuador said, “There are some advantages and disadvantages, for example in languages, I need more help, but in other subjects I come along fine.”

This story was reported by Salma Amrou in Suffolk, Virginia; Mariama Barry in Coastal Road, The Gambia; Aileen Cevallos in Quito, Ecuador; Nisha Chandar-Nair in Lincoln, England; Alyce Collett in Melbourne, Australia; Rosie Evans in Liverpool, England; Bilge Nur Güven in Istanbul; Holly Hostettler-Davies in Bridgend, Wales; Chuying Huo in Ontario, Canada; Erin Kim in Andover, Massachusetts; Manar Lezaar in Fez, Morocco; Katrina Machetta in Spring, Texas; Lyat Melese in Alexandria, Virginia; Nivetha Nandakumar in Cardiff, Wales; Purnima Priyadarsini in Bhubaneswar, India;  Aimee Shah in London; Parnian Shahsavary in Tehran, Iran; Lucy Tobier in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Daisy Wigg in Dartford, England.  It was written by Salma Amrou, Nisha Chandar-Nair and Erin Kim. Katrina Machetta made the cover photo.

Covid Mood is a global project by Youth Journalism International examining how the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 impacted mental health among the world’s young people. Its 17 news stories and accompanying photos and illustrations are by 21 students from a dozen nations on six continents. Together, they interviewed 56 teenagers and young adults in 18 countries and mental health professionals from five different nations. All Covid Mood stories are accessible here.

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