I have tears in my eyes this morning as my sophomore starts school online. When this great pause started out, I wrote about the ability we had to shift our focus to the things that matter most. I talked about being in the car less, not being a slave to our overbooked schedules, and having the time to take walks and breath the fresh air. Even with the stress of what we as a country were feeling economically, I felt like a pause was a good thing to protect people from the unknown of this virus and get the intangible benefits of a national slowdown to focus on our simple blessings. In the beginning, we felt the bond of coming together for the greater good. Selfishly, I was even happy to have my college age kid back at home, I never thought I would have that time with her again and it turned out to be such a gift during these uncertain times. She is one of the lucky ones who got to go back to her dorm room in Texas. Even with online classes and COVID tests that are part of the protocol for athletes, she is thriving as she learns to set her own schedule, manage her own day and her own health according to her priorities. She is learning every day about what is important, connecting with others, caring and doing life with people her own age. My second born is not as lucky, he will start his freshman year of college taking online classes at home because Stanford has announced that they won’t be bringing students on to campus. I am crushed for him. He has been raised to believe that hard work pays off, has proven to himself that it is true, only to have everything he worked for from academics to athletics decimated over the last few months, and at this point, it is getting harder and harder to understand why.
As we sit here almost six months later from when COVID-19 became part of our national consciousness, we have gone from thinking we were all at high risk, to numbers from the CDC that show us the populations that actually are. School age children and college kids are not in these high risk populations. I’m glad I didn’t know back in March that kids wouldn’t be going back to school in August, it would have taken away the things I’ve learned about myself and what we as a society are made of. Individually, people care, we want to help one another, protect the vulnerable, and be part of a solution. But there is so much confusion, why can we sit two feet away from each other outside a restaurant on the sidewalk, but not set up outdoor classrooms? Why are we forcing kids to be on screens all day when we have spent massive amounts of energy over our years as parents of young ones to keep them off their screens? There must be something better we can come up with than this. There are so many of us that are not at significant risk, not scared because we don’t belong to a vulnerable population, who have caring hearts, and are looking for leadership that can show us how be part of a real solution, one that can bring necessities to people who choose to stay inside and away from the rest of the world because their risk factors for contracting COVID are greater than our own, but also allows for real connection in the less vulnerable populations and for those of us that are able to work, use our purpose for good, and keep the economy going. There are real impacts to families beyond the risk of this virus that are chipping away at our foundational needs - the ability to provide for our families, use our purpose for the betterment of others and ourselves, and feel empowered by our own strength instead of shut down by collective fear.
The current climate is changing the mental landscape of young brains. Kids are scared and disconnected because they have been confined and unable to read faces for the last six months. Older kids are learning unhealthy coping mechanisms that can turn into addictions as they weather the disappointment of not being able to go off to college, connect with their friends, and be inspired by amazing teachers in the classroom. Every fall we send kids off to college with far greater risk factors in play than what they face with COVID such as alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorders, mental health struggles as they learn to navigate the pressures of the world on their own, and even suicide risk are issues that we have come to accept as part of the path to independence. Young adults don’t have the perspective of the long life that we as adults have developed with our life experience. Their experience in life up to today is all they know, and we can’t let the balance of their days be lived in this fear based zone we have inhabited since March. As parents, from the moment we have our children, we grapple with the knowledge that we cannot protect them from every danger in life. And if we try, we make ourselves crazy and reduce the resilience that is theirs to gain by taking chances and doing hard things. Life isn’t a protected zone, there are risks associated with living that cannot be avoided, but today I wonder if we are adding to them by instilling more fear than strength in the name of protection.
From preschool to college students, our kids relationship with connection, other people, fear, anxiety, and depression has changed. The power of great teaching has been diminished by the distance of cyberspace. My youngest is a kinesthetic learner, he learns best while his body is in motion, he uses whole-body movement to process new and difficult information. Regular school was a challenge before, but behind the screen it’s even more difficult.
If we had the ingenuity to weather the storm of full quarantine and create a system that delivered basic needs to all of us, we have the ability to come up with a solution that puts our students back in school and supports the at risk population simultaneously. There are so many of us that are not at high risk, who have caring hearts and capable minds, that would sacrifice in real ways to bring necessities to people who choose to stay inside due to their risk factors, and also create safer systems for kids to connect in person and thrive instead of merely survive. What can we do for them, and for us, to be a real part of the solution? These populations are our future, their mental health matters to the strength of our collective society. We can do better and I hope we figure out what that looks like soon. The beauty of life happens when we learn to master the simple in the midst of the complex. We must find our way back to connection, love, strength, and resilience, over fear, it’s what the human spirit was wired for.