Photo collage by LA Johnson/NPR
At this point in the pandemic, American teens have spent a significant chunk of their formative years isolated from friends and in fractured learning environments. More than 2 in 5 teens have reported persistently feeling sad or hopeless, according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of high school students. Many who were already struggling with trauma or mental health problems before the pandemic were deeply affected by the prolonged isolation.
But young people have also shown grace and resilience as they dealt with the challenges of COVID-19. NPR spoke to four high school students who marked the pandemic’s two year anniversary with a newfound sense of self, and big dreams for the future.
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Ruby, 17: “I left a toxic friendship, I explored myself more.”
By the time the pandemic closed her school in March 2020, Ruby had already spent weeks trying to ignore her mom’s warnings about COVID-19. Her mom is Chinese, and their relatives back in China had been updating her on the virus’ spread since its early days. Ruby says when her spring break got extended, her mom told her: “Oh yeah, you won’t be going back to school anytime soon.”
At first, remote learning heightened a lot of the anxieties Ruby already felt about her Minnetonka, Minn. high school. She transferred there in the fall of 2019 and was struggling to feel like she fit in because many of her new classmates came from wealthier families. NPR isn’t using Ruby’s last name to protect her privacy.
“It was just something I was worrying about constantly,” she said. “I was afraid to even move in class. I was just, like, sitting there, and I did not move because I was so anxious about what they were thinking about me.”
When school went online, Ruby, then a freshman, was self-conscious about showing her house on camera. She also had a hard time finding a quiet place to concentrate as her two siblings also switched to remote learning – she would often lose focus during Zoom class. During remote school, she says, “I didn’t learn anything.”
Ruby wasn’t the only one. In the first several months of the pandemic, two-thirds of U.S. students in grades nine through 12 told the CDC reported difficulty completing their schoolwork.
One upside to remote school was that it put some distance between Ruby and a friendship that she describes as toxic.
“She was the only person I really knew, so I kind of felt safe around her,” Ruby explains. “But at the same time, I didn’t really feel so safe because the people who she hung out with were not my people.”
Things changed for the better during Ruby’s sophomore year, when