Early results from COVID-19 student survey reveal students’ worries and hopes amid pandemic
For immediate release

Survey sent to about 65,000 Washington middle and high school students

OLYMPIA – Early results from the COVID-19 Student Survey of about 65,000 middle and high school students in Washington show many of them reported feeling sad or depressed most days during the pandemic. But the majority of students in each grade also reported a high degree of resilience, saying they were optimistic about the future.

The results of the survey offer important information to schools planning for how to best support students as they return to full-time in-person learning this fall. The survey covered a range of topics, including pandemic worries and behaviors, mental health and well-being, physical activity, and substance use. Statewide reports for participating middle and high schools can be found at csswashington.org.

Students in grades 6–12 from 330 schools in 35 of 39 counties took part in the survey, which was administered in March 2021. The project was designed to examine student needs and health risks during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide school leaders with a view into areas in which students may need support. The results are not representative of all middle and high schoolers across the state given that participating schools opted in to help with their own planning, but they do give a snapshot of thousands of students’ experiences.

Among the findings:

  • Some students reported concerns about the financial impacts of COVID-19 on their families.
    • Worry about parents or guardians losing their job (32 percent at the high school level and 43 percent at the middle school level)
    • Worry about being unable to afford housing (high school: 27 percent, middle school: 37 percent)
    • Worry about not having enough to eat (high school: 17 percent, middle school: 27 percent).
  • Of those surveyed, 58 percent of high school students and 45 percent of middle school students reported feeling sad or depressed on most days during the past year.
  • Remote learning was challenging. Nearly 70 percent of middle and high school students said they felt it was harder to do their schoolwork this year than it was last school year.
  • Substance use was down. Students reported lower levels of cigarette, electronic cigarette, alcohol, and cannabis use during the pandemic compared to data collected from pre-pandemic state data sources.
  • The survey results also show resilience among many students: More than 90 percent of participating students in each grade were at least slightly hopeful, and nearly 60 percent of all responding students reported feeling optimistic or hopeful about the future.

“It is clear this has been a challenging year for many students,” says Dr. Jason Kilmer, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington (UW) School of Medicine, who conducted the survey along with colleagues in the UW Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors. “However, we are encouraged by students’ hopefulness as we work to support youth in our communities. We anticipate that schools and communities can use these survey findings to identify needs and plan for the future.”

Leaders from participating schools have received their school’s survey results and said they will use the information to make the learning environment as inclusive, welcoming, and supportive as possible in the coming school year.

“The pandemic has been unlike anything we have ever faced before in education,” said Doug Burge, superintendent of Zillah School District in Yakima County. “Any information that will help us understand our students and their needs can only help us better prepare for the future.”

Students’ responses to questions about learning underscore the need for learning recovery and acceleration opportunities beyond what has been available in a typical school year, such as additional instructional time and increased access to tutoring supports.

The survey shows willingness among students to participate in those kinds of opportunities. For example, 43 percent of high school students surveyed said they would be willing to get one-on-one tutoring to catch up on learning missed during the pandemic.

During the 2021 legislative session, the Legislature allocated federal and state funding to accelerate student learning and support student well-being. This includes afterschool programs, summer learning programs, additional school counselors in high-need areas, and resources for community-based organizations to provide academic and social-emotional supports directly to students.

The COVID-19 Student Survey was funded and supported by the Washington State Health Care Authority (HCA) and implemented by a team at the University of Washington (UW), with further partnership around content, design, and distribution from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Washington State Department of Health.