Ianne Salvosa – a senior at Liberty High School in Lake St. Louis, Missouri – sits alone in most of her classes, counting the floor tiles to ensure she’s six feet away from students and teachers, who sometimes fail to wear masks correctly. When her school district transitioned its students from hybrid to in-person learning, surveys went out to parents and teachers to gauge their reactions. Students, however, weren’t surveyed.
“When they force us to choose between safety and education and cannot enforce appropriate measures to keep us safe, I can’t say I have faith in our leaders,” she said.
An organizing fellow at the student-led nonprofit Student Voice, Salvosa shared her experience as a part of the organization’s online panel on Monday, which called on education secretary nominee Dr. Miguel Cardona to directly involve students in decision making at the U.S. Department of Education. High school student activists spoke about what they think equitable education should look like amid and beyond COVID-19, including the college admissions process.
Students highlighted a report by Student Voice called “A Roadmap to Authentically Engage Youth Voice in the U.S. Department of Education.” The report is an outgrowth of virtual listening sessions with 1,500 elementary, middle school and high school students from across the U.S. about their hopes for the education department going forward, a part of the #StartWithStudents campaign.
It recommends the department hold regular listening sessions and roundtable discussions with students; include students on all commissions, workgroups and convenings across its offices; hire staffers focused on youth engagement; and create a federal advisory committee with student members about the department’s role in addressing intersections between COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change.
“Although adults hold expertise, students live the experiences, and often through the disparities that are very rarely called out in our public education system,” said Pragya Upreti, a Student Voice ambassador and high school junior at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky.
For example, Meril Mousoom – also a Student Voice ambassador and a senior at Stuyvesant High School in New York City – described their experience as a transgender student of color.
“I’m sick and tired of my queer Bengali transgender life being confined to one page in a history curriculum,” they said. “This is about our lives. This is about our future. This is about our education. And we deserve a say in it.”
Student Voice Journalism Fellow Nyasha Musoni, a senior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Kentucky, said the department needs to not only involve students but a diverse group of students, and the key is to “look where they already are,” like student activist groups. She also recommended the department “work on identifying communities not often heard from on issues that directly impact them,” like English language learners on literacy issues and Title I students on opportunity gaps.
Students also placed emphasis on the need for more education around mental health and more school counselors, including college counselors.
Musoni described college counselors as overloaded and unable to focus on all the needs of the individual student, especially first-generation students who may need more help in the college admissions process, made only more complicated by the “virtual setting.”
All of the deadlines – for college applications, financial aid, scholarships – “can seem like a lot,” especially without family who’s been through the process in the U.S., she said. “And oftentimes, in worst-case scenarios, you find out about [deadlines] after the fact.”
Mousoom pointed to the drop in FAFSA applications for low-income students during the pandemic.
“This pandemic has really laid bare the inequities that people have faced,” they said. “Because of the economic recession, there are students right now who are working to support their families. There are students who are taking care of family members who have COVID. There are students who have COVID themselves. There are students who have a lot of trauma from all the racial inequities that have happened this past year.”
They advocated for more lenient policies on grading and attendance this year to avoid setting up extra roadblocks for these students in their college admissions process.
Salvosa, who just finished the college application process, also called for the education department to prioritize ensuring that first-generation students have easy access to college readiness resources, like tutoring for the SAT and ACT. She finds that schools vary in the extent to which they provide guidance like test preparation.
In general, she wants to see education leaders “pay more attention to first-generation students and students who are the children of immigrants in this college application process,” she said. “As the daughter of two immigrants, I know during this time, I was just very lost, because a lot of students just have their parents to direct them.”
Sara Weissman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.