The COVID Kids are Not Alright

Photo by Emily Elconin for The New York Times.

I’m worried about COVID kids. That’s my label for everyone coming of age amid a pandemic. 

They’re bearing the brunt of the virus, even though most infected children are at less risk of becoming severely ill. It’s also a tough time to be young and on the verge of a personal and professional launch. Remote learning is accelerating the impact of difficulties today’s youth already face: rises in depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts.

Kids are back in school in both New York City and D.C., where students were required to produce a negative test result. But in Chicago — the country’s third-largest school district — the teacher’s union voted to refuse to show up for in-person work. The decision upended school altogether, and, of course, these kids’ lives.

On Tuesday, the second day back from winter break, Chicago public schools reported 422 new cases among students. While that’s reportedly the highest during this school year, the district teaches more than 340,000 students. I did the math: The positivity rate translates to roughly 0.1% of the student body. 

That shouldn’t bring everything to a halt.

Thousands of other schools around the country have also delayed a return to in-person learning. Cities such as Atlanta, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Detroit have switched to online classes or canceled school altogether.

What happened to the funding that was supposed to alleviate this? 

The federal government earmarked $130 billion of coronavirus relief funds for ventilation in schools and social distancing in classrooms. $10 billion more was set aside for testing in schools

So, what have we done to our kids? As this New York Times headline puts it: “[There’s] no way to grow up for the past two years, [and] Americans have accepted more harm to children in exchange for less harm to adults.”

Some statistics cited by author David Leonhart? Research group NWEA found that among third through eighth graders, math and reading levels were all lower than normal this fall. These shortfalls were most significant among Black and Hispanic students, as well as children in schools with high poverty rates.

On top of the educational slippage, the non-academic aspects of school — lunch periods, extracurriculars, sports, assemblies, plays, field trips — have been all but curtailed or eliminated.

I’m worried about kids being educated remotely and losing out on a whole slew of social dynamics. What you can’t get through a Zoom scream are life lessons, the contours of human interactions, and the forging of relationships. 

And there’s what Dr. Jean Twenge calls the “iGen:” The students who graduated from high school or college without the pomp and circumstance of a traditional commencement ceremony. They’ve missed out on the social interactions that I benefited from — riding the yellow school bus, jockeying for certain tables in the cafeteria, playing after-school sports. Many have begun first jobs without the close contact and mentorship of a colleague or the on-site mentorship of a boss. They too are missing out, losing the nuance that no email chain or Slack group can provide.

Having participated in countless online meetings over the past two years, I know I’m a different person when things are being recorded. I’m more stilted and less natural. Yes, sometimes that’s a good thing. But it’s not a fair reflection of real back-and-forth. The iGen are deprived of on-the-job collaborative efforts, not to mention the camaraderie of watercooler chitchat with coworkers.

After all, when I first began practicing law, I learned more from watching colleagues try cases than I did sitting in lecture halls.

Work habits aren’t being fully formed remotely. Someone needs to tell today’s new hires what it means to be on the clock, that “bro” and “bestie” aren’t inappropriate ways to communicate with a superior, and that sometimes you just have to get the job done.

The elementary students in Chicago that missed the past week of school, the high school and college students who missed social and academic milestones, and the new hires who can’t pick up work norms while clocking in from their living rooms. They’re all COVID kids. And they’re not alright.

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