We ask our children to be socially distant. The least we can do is be emotionally present.
For all the burdens that COVID-19 puts on adults, the toll on children is its own menacing mix of fear, confusion, anxiety and isolation. This is a disaster where the despair is quiet. There is no siren to jolt us out of our pandemic pattern of adjusting, enduring, hoping and coping.
And that means we have to listen more carefully.
Even as they are resiliently upbeat about their future, young people are living a virtual reality with a visceral sense of loss. It can be easy to forget, after all these months, how massively life has changed for them. Across parts of two school years, they have masked their faces, missed their milestones and traded classrooms for learning that is as remote as that word suggests.
Children cannot rely on adults to be the grown-ups in the room when there is no adult in the room. Think of the Denver public schools students who showed up for their teachers’ online office hours without any questions to ask.
As the school system superintendent Susana Cordova told an interviewer: “They just wanted to be around somebody while they were doing work. And they’d look up every now and then to make sure the teacher was still there.”
Kids needs these people in their lives — teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, mentors. That is even more true when pandemic parents are struggling just to have time to think. The legitimate health reasons for limiting in-person learning across America has shut out a lot of coveted adult time for children, undermining their social and emotional development.
Children feel stress, anxiety
The consequences are right in front of us.
About 7 in 10 students have obstacles to learning virtually. Of those, half of the children say they feel depressed, stressed or anxious, according to a sprawling YouthTruth survey of 20,000 students taken in May and June, when the pandemic was becoming a way of life.
Learning from home, students reported their own version of what many of us feel: the tension of schedule conflicts, family health concerns and a lack of anyone with whom to share their problems.
The COVID-19 effects are widespread but also predictably inequitable: black, Hispanic and poorer students are expected to experience the greatest loss of learning and engagement.
Our tendency in disasters is to rescue, recover, regroup and rebuild. Yet then we leave out the last part: remember. We must remember to keep helping children deal with what will be the long-term implications of this troubling time.
Effects are likely to linger
As the former president and CEO of UNICEF USA, I saw children hurting from earthquakes, droughts, refugee crisis and disease. The effects of those disasters on kids lingered long after the public attention and media coverage had faded.
We have the power to get ahead of this one. Here are five ways how we can do that:
Pay attention. We cannot just be on Zoom. We need to zoom in. Let’s listen even more carefully to what our children are saying, and look for the signs of what they are not saying. As one student in the YouthTruth survey said: “Stress is going around the world like a virus.”
Nurture relationships. Every person and group has the ability to foster strong student-adult relationships. The Walton Family Foundation is addressing the COVID-19 challenge by investing $35 million, including $1.5 million in groups that are creatively addressing the social, emotional and educational needs of children.
We are inspired by their work — from giving young people tools of self-expression to translating the science of learning into ways to reduce student stress.
Embrace the power of one. The solution gets smaller when we realize just how much one person can do. This is personal to me; when my Mom was a child, it was one woman, a family friend, who helped her escape the Holocaust. That lesson has stayed with me my entire life.
Take action. A time of reckoning can also be an opportunity to swing big. The coronavirus has put a spotlight on the racial and economic inequities of America’s public education. We all have greater appreciation for how much we rely on schools to be open and serving our kids. So let’s act. Systemic change in our schools begins with awareness, but it demands action.
Reward hope. Young people remain hopeful. Most of them feel that the coronavirus has made it harder for them to succeed, according to the views of millennials (age 24 to 39) and Generation Z (age 13 to 23) in a new study by the Walton Family Foundation.
However, the vast majority — 81 percent — believe that hard work will bring them success in life. Across racial and ethnic lines, they believe the American Dream is in reach. Most think the coronavirus will affect their generation for a few months or years, but not permanently.
Let’s reward that hope. Let’s listen to them. Let’s remember the best present is to be present. Our kids deserve that much.
This article was initially published in USA Today on Nov. 10, 2020.