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The Impact of COVID-19 on Teens

My seventeen-year-old high school junior and her friends are wading through the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been almost three months since her school closed. I remember when we were all hopeful that her summer plans would only be slightly altered, but her life has been disrupted in profound ways. She will be part of the first group of seniors to write college essays about this experience. I thought this article about the impact of COVID-19 on her and other teens like her was an important perspective to capture.

Overseas Adventure – March

Throughout high school, Fi had great grades. As a reward for her strong academic performance and demonstrated maturity, we had planned for her to take an overseas trip in late July of 2020. This trip was the result of a nomination by her band director and she and her trumpet were to join 150 teenage musicians from across the U.S. in travel to England, France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Liechtenstein, and Germany. They would perform small concerts while also fitting in some sightseeing. It was an opportunity that we felt would provide a safe and thrilling college preparatory experience with lots of practice interacting with a diverse group of new people. She was very much looking forward to it and we had been making payments for months.

With the news of the tragic conditions in Europe coming into focus, I began talking with other families who had teens participating in the trip. Even in mid-March, parents remained hopeful that the trip could still take place by steering clear of COVID hot spots. The more we watched the news, the clearer the decision became. Our family decided not to participate in the trip just prior to the organizer concluding that it was neither feasible nor responsible to go. Participating families suffered steep financial penalties. It was surprising for all of us to see how some families then reacted to the trip organizer’s handling of the situation – despite the global circumstances. Lawsuits are being threatened to recover contractually agreed upon financial penalties and online smear campaigns are being kicked off. I walked away feeling thankful that Fi would be home safe (safer?) with us. Fi was disappointed that the opportunity disintegrated but also relieved that she wouldn’t be caught in a difficult situation while far from home.

Symptoms? – March

During late March, Fi started developing COVID-like symptoms. She had a headache, terrible cough, sore throat, low energy but never a fever. It was allergy season in Northern Virginia, and we were all experiencing some symptoms. We watched hers for several days but on the morning she described a “squeaking” noise in her chest, we decided it was time to see her doctor. We were all panicked by the idea of venturing out of the house and the possibility of her having the virus. After describing her symptoms to her doctor’s office over the phone, I was told that they would not see her. They referred us to an Inova clinic that had been designated for patients with respiratory symptoms. We were instructed to call from the curb when we arrived to check in. Upon arrival, she was triaged over the phone and instructed to walk toward the door to wait for a nurse. The nurse opened the door only wide enough to slide two medical masks through, waiting while we put them on properly. Once masked, the nurse was free to open the door to explain that it would be better if I remained in my car for mutual safety reasons.

The doctor determined that because our daughter was not considered to be in a high-risk group, she would only be tested for flu and strep, but not COVID-19. Results were negative for both and she was sent home with a nebulizer treatment to reduce the fluid in her lungs. Thankfully, the squeaking noise dissipated within a few days, but we left being very uncertain about what additional precautions we should be taking. No one slept very well for several days.

Fi was traumatized by the experience so the last thing we wanted to do was quarantine her further from family members. We rationalized that if she did have the virus, we were probably already exposed so we continued with our existing quarantine practices. Fi wrestled with guilt and anxiety as she recuperated and was thankful that no one else in the family developed symptoms.

The Visit – March

In late March, our twenty-something-year-old daughter moved back home for a couple weeks while her fiancé was deployed by the Air Force, and her own training program was paused. This turned out to be a gift for all of us, but especially for Fi. Given their five-year age difference, the two girls had not had a chance to develop their adult relationship. This was the perfect opportunity.  My husband and I were the lucky beneficiaries of their joint baking projects, attempts to learn new dance routines and family time making jigsaw puzzles.

When our older daughter left upon her fiancé’s return, we all felt a big hole. We were concerned about her reuniting with him after he had traveled internationally. Given the overlap with Fi’s COVID-like symptoms there was also worry about our older daughter’s exposure and propagation of the spread. We were all conflicted about letting her leave. But in the absence of knowing if Fi did have the virus, we cautiously watched our older daughter go back to New Jersey.

Spring Sports and Events – March/April

Despite being under the weather, Fi was eager to start summer basketball as soon as she was able. Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) is a selective, competitive summer league. Young athletes considering college play can come together to compete and be seen by college coaches. Unfortunately, in April, AAU began cancelling early tournaments and then eventually ALL tournaments for the summer. An athlete can only play in AAU tournaments prior to your 18th birthday so this was to be Fi’s final summer of play. Her coach had enrolled the team in tournaments in Chicago, Louisville, New York, Raleigh, and D.C. so summer plans were again shifting. Initially, the coach was encouraging the girls to stay physically active for when play resumed. The girls were to find ways to stay in shape through at-home fitness programs since school gyms were all closed.

This was about the time that schools announced they were not reopening. Nor would events like prom, graduation, summer internships, end of year band concerts or school plays be taking place. Individually these were all mounting disappointments to Fi who became obsessed with watching TikTok videos of people wearing their prom dresses or at home or singing the song they should have performed in the school play. This was a low point for her, and it was hard to find appropriate diversions. We became conscious of her phone time since she seemed to spend long hours wallowing in the sorrow of missed opportunities. She needed some structure in her day. Everyone started to look toward the kick-off of virtual classes.

Virtual Classes – April

Migrating classes to a virtual environment proved to be incredibly challenging for Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) and Fi was two to three weeks behind her private school counterparts. Some of the FCPS population did not have at-home computers or internet access and some students still needed access to school-provided meals. Resolving these issues were a first step that private schools seemed to dodge. I empathize with FCPS’s challenges in providing access to everyone, yet some parents seemed disproportionately impatient given the circumstances.

In the meantime, FCPS decided to wave final exams and set policy that final grades could not be reduced below whatever a student’s first semester grade was. Students were to receive two days of teacher instruction per week and teachers were to be available at other times for virtual office hours. Initial bandwidth, connectivity and appearances from unwelcome participants created disruption and confusion making the first two weeks of virtual classes ineffective. When classes finally came into rhythm, students were about 3 ½ weeks from taking their first AP exams. Motivation became an issue for many kids. They were desperately seeking structure but found this schedule to be sparse. Fi’s focal point became preparing for her AP exams that had also been modified to meet the moment. She worked hard to stay focused but had to take quite a bit of initiative to feel properly prepared.

AP Exams – May

AP exams are normally taken in school and are proctored, 3-hour long tests that cover a year’s worth of material. They are standardized internationally so that a students’ command of the material can be measured, and college credit can be apportioned. It was determined that this year, AP exams would be online, 45-minutes long, and consist of only free-response-style questions. Students were coached to triple-check emails to receive their online access code. The first AP exams revealed some glitches in being able to upload answers to questions that resulted in the need for retakes in June. Below is an actual email that was shared with me from a Herndon High School student written to their AP Computer Science teacher. She experienced an issue in uploading her answers for the May 15th exam:

Subject Line: AP Exam Fail
I am currently crying on my bedroom floor because at the last minute my internet decided to crash. I have all the responses and a video showing that my internet went off and I cannot submit. This was so easy and I had a whole 6 minutes to submit earlier and my WiFi decided to crash. I don’t know what to do, so I’m emailing you for guidance. A virtual hug would be very nice too.

Fi was successfully able to submit her AP Computer Science exam but the fact that many students experienced issues triggered a software and policy change by College Board, the administrator of the AP tests. Students who had issues submitting answers to subsequent tests would email them directly afterward to an address provided upon a failed submission. This happened to Fi when taking the AP Psychology exam on May 19th triggering a frustrating 90-minute phone call with College Board’s Help Desk. We came to believe that her submission finally went through which is why the system did not send the email address. I guess we won’t know for sure until grades arrive in a few weeks. Fi’s tensions ran high going into her next exam. Luckily there were no submission issues for the final test.

The News – Ongoing

Listening to the news in the last few months proved to be something we had to dose. The news was overwhelmingly focused on COVID-19 death rates, the President’s handling of the situation, the economic impact, medical recommendations, and the vastly differing opinions about the level of risk. As a diversionary project back in March, Fi and I put together an online survey asking teens several questions about how they were coping. Responses indicated they were staying physically active and had settled into quarantining with family members. But they were spending A LOT of time online chatting with friends, gaming or binge-watching whatever programming they could find.

The responses around the effects of watching the news were the ones I found most compelling. About half of the students said they were watching news, while the other half found it too troubling or uninteresting. Below are some of the responses they gave when asked what effect watching the news was having on them.

  • Makes me depressed so I stop watching, I just watch the stock market tank
  • It is making me increasingly worried but glad that I can stay informed
  • It’s quite terrifying with all the statistics and to see people that still aren’t abiding by the rules of the government
  • Stress and its hurting everyone in the house
  • I feel, in a way, angered now. Due to the increase of protests regarding social distancing, I feel as though people are more concerned about their personal freedoms to do unimportant activities rather than the safety of those around them. Due to this, many of my working friends are actually being targeted for wearing masks at their works, and I really just feel as though these protests are just extremely selfish and unfair for all those who are actually trying to stay safe.
  • Not much of an effect. The news is very one sided.
  • It’s very stressful to see to what degree this whole situation is being mismanaged by our government.
  • I’m positive that we are going on (sic) the right direction

Going Forward

Between March and April, I watched Fi go from disappointment to fear expressing no desire to leave the house for weeks. By May, feelings started turning to resignation that there is a new normal. She occasionally ventured out to drop baked gifts in friends’ mailboxes. Upon publishing of this article, she is just getting comfortable with small errands like running to the grocery store. She misses her friends and misses all the independence that she knew. But she also knows she is one of the fortunate ones. We quarantined in a home that provided a lot of space to spread out and safe outdoor walking and bike riding options. She knows this wasn’t the case for everyone.

I have heard some experts say that we are all going through a grief-like process. From my recent experience with grief after losing my Dad, I’ve learned we need to be patient with ourselves and resist taking on too much. But for Fi, college applications are around the corner. Anyone with experience watching kids go through this process knows it’s a challenging time.

Recently I attended a virtual parent forum for those with rising seniors – the Class of 2021. It was reported that seniors from the Class of 2020 chose to stay closer to home as they made their college choices. Parents of teens entering the college admissions process this year were encouraged to have our kids practice writing their college essays earlier than usual. We were told to screen them to make sure they weren’t taking a dark turn that would concern prospective universities.

Can we really expect that post-traumatic stress and uncertainty won’t be top of mind for rising seniors for months to come? This will most certainly show up in college essays. Perhaps some students will be able to present a silver lining, many will likely share lessons learned, but some will need to reflect their struggles. I’m hoping that college admissions professionals can leave room for student grief, emotions, and contemplation.

Maybe we should be asking teens for proposed solutions too some of the tough questions they will continue to face. For example, how will competitive school sports need to change to keep student athletes safe? Or what are the new social codes for dating given possible infection. Involving students in thinking through solutions might be the best way to prepare them for what is to come. We parents will all need to be observant, supportive and patient while we navigate this – together.

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