COVID-19 Continues: How Worried are High School Students?

Main Author: Dana Murano
Supporting Author: Kate Walton
ACT Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning

Let’s face it: COVID-19 has many of us worried. Whether we are worrying about job loss and economic implications, the health of friends and family members, or the sheer uncertainty of what the next few months will bring, feeling worry at this time is perfectly normal.

We wanted to hear from students to learn how they are being affected by the pandemic. Are students worried? And more so, are some groups of students more worried than others? Specifically, we were interested in gauging students’ general state anxiety levels and how worried they are about their lives changing as a result of COVID-19.

We sampled 642 college-bound high school students to ask them how they were feeling in the midst of the pandemic. Respondents came from 46 states across the United States and 74.6% were female. We learned the following:

Are high school students feeling anxious?

The short answer: Yes.

We asked students to complete a brief state anxiety measure in order to capture how students are feeling right now, during the pandemic. Student scores were higher in our sample (average score = 36) than they typically are in other samples (average scores range from 27-31).

Are some groups feeling more anxious than others? If so, who?

Short answer #2: Yes.

Anxiety levels are significantly higher for students who know someone who had experienced extreme symptoms of COVID-19. Females reported significantly higher anxiety levels than males. We also took a look at how students of different race/ethnicity groups were faring. Non-White students tended to be more worried than their White peers. There were no significant differences between students in different geographic regions (Northeast, Midwest, South, and West). There were also no significant differences between students with family income below the national median (about $60k/year) and students with family income above the national median.

Figure 1. State anxiety scores by student race/ethnicity.

Are high school students worried about their futures?

Another short answer: Yes.

In addition to how anxious students are feeling now, we wanted to check in with students to see how they are feeling in regard to their futures. For example, are they worried that school closures will hurt their chances of getting into college? The graph below shows the percentage of students who reported worrying about the effects of COVID-19.

Figure 2: Students’ worry about the future given COVID-19.

Are some groups more worried about the future than others? If so, who?

Final short answer: Yes.

I worry about how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact others’ lives

As we see above, 91% of students agree that they are worried about how the pandemic will affect others’ lives. Female students, non-White students, and students who know someone who had experienced extreme symptoms of the virus worry the most about this. Worry levels did not differ based on geographic region or family income.

I worry about how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact my life

78% of students agree that they are worried about how the pandemic will affect their own lives. Again, students with the highest worry levels are those students who are female, non-White, and know someone who had experienced extreme symptoms of the virus. Worry levels were constant across geographic region and family income.

I am worried that school closures will hurt my chances of getting into college

65% of students are worried in some way about how the pandemic will impact their path to college. Females and non-White students worry the most about the pandemic affecting their chances of getting into college. There were no differences based on knowing others with COVID-19, geographic region, or family income.

Some Caveats and Conclusions

In summary, we see that students in this sample are currently experiencing elevated levels of anxiety and worrying about their futures. According to our data, females and Non-White students are amongst the groups experiencing these feelings most intensely.

There are a few caveats. It’s important to keep in mind that this is just one sample of students with limited representation of all ethnic/racial groups and income levels across the United States. We have more work to do in order to understand how allstudents across the country are doing in light of the pandemic, including those who are underprivileged or not college bound. We will share a full report with additional findings on this site soon.

Though students are feeling worried, the good news is that there are things we can do to help. In this blog, we share some ways to cope with worry and build resilience. It is okay to feel worried right now, but it’s important that students feel comfortable sharing these feelings, unpacking them, and taking steps to reduce them. We will talk more next week on students’ use of social and emotional skills during the pandemic, how social and emotional skills are developing during this time, and why social and emotional skills will be continually important in the future.

Some Additional Answers

We have been giving you mostly short answers thus far. For anyone who wants longer or more technical answers to the questions we posed, this is for you. Below we report effect sizes, or standardized mean differences, between subgroups on each of these outcomes. How do you interpret this? As a rule of thumb, an effect size of 0.2 is a “small” effect, an effect size of 0.5 is a “medium” effect, and an effect size of 0.8 is a “large” effect. If the confidence interval listed below the effect size includes 0, this effect isn’t statistically significant. More information on interpreting effect sizes here.

Table 1. Effect sizes by subgroup differences.

Note. All values reported in this table are in the Cohen’s d metric with a 95% confidence interval. aA positive effect indicates a higher mean for students knowing someone with COVID-19 than students who do not know someone with COVID-19.  bA positive effect indicates a higher mean for students who know someone who has experienced extreme symptoms of COVID-10 than students who do not know anyone experiencing extreme symptoms of COVID-19. cA positive effect indicates a higher mean for females than males. dA positive effect indicates a higher mean for non-White students than White students. eA positive effect indicates a higher mean for students with family income below the national median than students with family income above the national median.

Dana Murano, PhD

Dana Murano, PhD

Research Scientist - Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning: Dana Murano is a Research Scientist in ACT's Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning. She completed her PhD in Educational Psychology with a specialization in Learning, Development, and Instruction at the City University of New York. Her research focuses primarily on the development and assessment of social and emotional skills in students. Additional work and research interests include the development of interventions to improve social and emotional skills, meta-analysis, and the intersection of feedback and the development of social and emotional skills.