Schools in Ontario shut down more than eight weeks ago on March 14th and will remain closed for the rest of the school year. Teenagers, like all of us, have had their lives upended by COVID-19. Online learning has been far from ideal for students and their families. It’s especially difficult for marginalized youth who rely on schools and community centres for support programs, safety from abusive homes, and even their daily meals. The Social Impacts of COVID-19 on Canadian Youth web survey revealed that the global pandemic is taking an emotional toll on youth.
We spoke to four student leaders from Urban Minds’ 1UP program to see how their lives have changed since the pandemic shut schools down. What are their fears and anxieties? How are they coping? And what are their takeaways for when things do go back to “normal”?
For the extroverts among them, it took some time for them to adjust to being stuck at home. Christina, a 16-year-old, says, “I can’t go out anywhere. I haven’t been on a sidewalk for a whole month. I always look forward to seeing my friends now.” They are left to rely on Facetime, Instagram, and TikTok to stay connected with friends. Yet a few of them mentioned that this wasn’t a big change since they were already using these applications to stay connected to friends prior to the pandemic.
However, not being able to see friends is very different for Grade 12 students who will be graduating this month. There’s a deep sense of loss for missing prom, graduation trips, and not being able to spend the last days of school with their friends. Wendy, a Grade 12 student at the University of Toronto School, was looking forward to her senior arts trip to New York City and had spent months planning and organizing leading up to a Model UN conference this spring. Having everything canceled has been “upsetting and everything feels monotonous,” says Wendy.
This loss is further exacerbated by anxieties about the illness itself and what life is going to look like after. Wendy wonders when things will go back to normal and what the new “normal” will look like. Enosh, a Grade 12 student from Sir John A. Macdonald High School, grapples with the same sense of loss. He tries to pay less attention to the news and instead has been taking time to check-in with his family and friends regularly. “I’m trying to put my issues into perspective and see the bigger picture of what’s going on everywhere.”
Like Enosh, others have also been finding ways to cope with their worries. Michelle, a 1UP Fellow, and Grade 11 student has turned to music and has been organizing virtual choirs with Conchordium, a non-profit she is a part of. So far, they have 80 participants from around the world. Christina has been using this time to make art. Since she is not able to go to an art store to buy materials, the pandemic has pushed her to be creative and experiment with the materials she already has at home.
As youth navigate this new reality, each of them has also been self-reflecting. So as we wrapped up calls with each of them, the last thing we asked them was what they hoped communities and individuals would take away from this pandemic. A few of them wondered how this would impact how communities and countries tackle climate change. They discussed how access to education has changed. All of them looked forward to being reunited with friends and family. And although left unsaid by most of them, there was a sense that this was a big and important time in their lives. They felt like being a part of something larger, as one of them said, “it’s like we are going to be in a history textbook”.
To support youth during this time, Urban Minds is working to put together webinars featuring city-building professionals to teach them the basics of urban planning, design, and career development. The 1UP program is also moving to an online format. The 1UP Leaders Lab this summer will feature activities and talks on design thinking, project management, public speaking, and leadership. As mentioned in the announcement by Ontario’s Ministry of Education, schools are not going to look the same in September. As we learn more about these changes, we will continue to aspire to help students to make a positive impact on their city.