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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Less excited, less prepared, less challenged: Mass. high school students report big disparities in learning online vs. in person

A staffer worked on a touchless hand sanitizer dispenser in a classroom at Boston Preparatory Charter School in August.
A staffer worked on a touchless hand sanitizer dispenser in a classroom at Boston Preparatory Charter School in August.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

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Massachusetts high school students learning from home during the pandemic report feeling less excited about learning, less prepared for college, and less challenged in class than those learning fully in person, a survey released Tuesday shows.

The survey of 1,000 high school students across the state adds students’ voices to the roiling debate among parents, teachers, and epidemiologists over reopening schools nearly a year after the pandemic forced widespread closures. The telephone surveys of public and private school students, which occurred last November and December, showed large disparities in academic impacts of the pandemic, which could compound educational inequities for years to come.

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The survey — conducted by Gallup and funded by the Boston-based Barr Foundation — seemed to largely reflect the state’s patchwork of community-based decisions over school reopening, in which most large, urban districts remain remote. Affluent students and white students are more likely to be in “hybrid” arrangements, which mix online classes with some in-person learning, while low-income students and students of color are more likely to be learning remotely full time. Private school students are far more likely to be learning in person five days a week.

Of the students surveyed, 39 percent were fully remote, 55 percent were hybrid, and 6 percent were in person full time.

About one-third of high schoolers learning remotely or in hybrid models reported feeling behind academically, compared to just 8 percent of those in classrooms full time.

And nearly half of high school juniors and seniors learning remotely feel their school hasn’t adequately prepared them for college or career plans, compared to just 23 percent of hybrid students and 7 percent of full-time in-person students.

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At Malden High School, which has been remote since last March, junior Ketshaly Philome, 16, said she feels the pandemic has made it “10 times as hard to try to prepare for college.” Her school’s college adviser has held some online sessions, but she feels she’s missing out on crucial guidance — which would be easily accessible at school — to help her learn where to apply, how to secure scholarships, and improve her applications.

“I barely even know what to look for in a college,” said Philome, who didn’t participate in the survey. “The resources aren’t coming to me, I have to go chasing after them. With all the extra work I’m getting in school, it’s not always easy to make time for that.”

For many questions in the survey, responses didn’t differ greatly between students in remote models and those in hybrid arrangements.

That surprised one of the researchers, Jonathan Rothwell, Gallup’s principal economist.

“I thought hybrid would be somewhere in the middle,” Rothwell said. “It seems like hybrid students are a lot closer to the fully remote students than I would’ve guessed.”

The largest disparities fell between those students and the ones who are in classrooms full time, which represented a small segment of the survey sample, and of the state’s students, are mostly private school students.

“High school students were unsatisfied with school this year across the board, but [the poll] also showed that students overall were not satisfied with their high school experience before the pandemic either,” said Kate Dobin, senior education program officer at the Barr Foundation. “Just going back to the way things were before the pandemic is not going to address the needs our high school students have.”

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(The Barr Foundation partially funds the Globe’s Great Divide team reporting on educational inequities.)

Hybrid and remote students gave similar responses regarding their motivation to get good grades, confidence in their ability to succeed, amount of daily learning, and motivation to learn. Meanwhile, the share of in-person students who felt strong in those areas was more than 10 percentage points higher on each question.

For example, only about one-quarter of students in both remote and hybrid models reported feeling prepared to succeed or that their schoolwork challenges them in a good way, compared to more than half of those learning in school full time.

Just 13 percent and 17 percent of remote learners and hybrid learners, respectively, said they were excited about their studies, compared to nearly half of students learning fully in person.

The results could raise questions about whether hybrid models — which school administrators say are logistical challenges — are worth the effort. A poll of Massachusetts parents last fall revealed that hybrid parents were the most dissatisfied with their children’s schooling.

But given the choice, students want to be in school, the survey showed. Half favor attending school in person full time, and one-third wanted a hybrid arrangement. Just 16 percent prefer remote learning.

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And it’s clear many students remain unable to access remote school, even this far into the pandemic.

Black and Latino students are less likely to live in households with solid internet connectivity — 77 percent of white students’ internet was reported to be “reliable,” while among Black and Latino students, that portion fell to about 58 percent.

Lower-income students were less likely to report having someone at home who could help them if they had technological troubles accessing schoolwork, compared to families with higher incomes.

“That just compounds the inequities we know were in our education system before the pandemic,” Dobin said.

The survey also signaled that in-person learning likely carries benefits for students’ emotional and social wellness, though not in every aspect. Students in hybrid and remote learning models were far more likely to experience worry and stress than fully in-person students. But students’ likelihood of feeling sad or lonely for “a lot” of their day was more consistent — at around one-quarter — across all students. And the percentage saying they experienced happiness and fun was also consistently high among all students.

Read the full survey:


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.