Sports. Graduations. Proms. As schools close across the country, a teen shares what it’s like for older kids navigating all the unknowns that come with an unprecedented pandemic in this week’s ‘Teen Talk’ column. 

By Ryan Walker
March 17, 2020
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Illustration by Yeji Kim

When the novel coronavirus of 2019, known as COVID-19 for short, started spreading through Europe and reached the United States' west coast in February, my life at NYU remained unphased. At the time, my main focus was picking out clothes to pack for my alternative spring break trip to a rural town in the Dominican Republic. There, along with students from other universities, I was going to teach English and Spanish to youth.

But as the outbreak became more urgent, NYU banned all "non-essential school-sanctioned travel" and my trip was canceled. I was upset, watching friends share pictures of their own spring break travels on Instagram. I selfishly wanted to be them, but I had no idea how much life was about to change before they even landed back home.

Anxiety Is High as Schools Closed

Although missing my spring break trip wasn’t ideal, it all seemed like it would work out. My family suggested that I come back home to Maryland. Days before I planned to book my ticket home, a friend living uptown posted that Columbia University had moved to online classes only. They had a member of their community in quarantine and were taking preventive actions. Soon to follow, St. John's University, Fordham University, The New School, and other colleges and universities around us sent their students home in favor of remote classes. Then on March 9, we received an email that NYU would move to online courses and we shouldn’t expect to return to classes for at least two weeks. I called my family, booked a bus ticket home, and frantically started packing.

I was anxious and stressed as I stood in my dorm room trying to choose what I would need and want for an undetermined amount of time at home. In the meantime, I attended my last in-person photography class—Introduction to Lighting—where my teacher said, “I don’t know how this class is going to work. Any suggestions?” My heart sank as I sat in a quiet room where no one had any idea how to proceed. How do you properly learn studio work at home with no studio and no equipment? I felt so defeated. Having a lecture class online is already frustrating enough, but now the course I had worked so hard to get into and to grow in felt like it was taken from me.

Students Are Missing Opportunities

My on-campus job as an admissions ambassador was restricted as NYU had canceled all tours and Admitted Students Day. My work with the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs was then restricted. For Youth Art Month I was supposed to plan and lead a class for fifth grade students in Harlem, yet with school closed and my return home imminent, I wouldn’t be able to attend. Finally, my plans to attend the National 4-H Conference for military support systems and college readiness in Kansas City were forced to change. There, I was supposed to give a speech, sit on a panel, and lead a breakout session on how to better support military families on installations worldwide. Yet, due to safety concerns with travel, I wasn’t able to commit.

I was devastated by all of these changes. What I was feeling is similar to what every student across the country has been feeling. "Teens may have an understanding of why things have to be shut down and canceled, but that does not make the loss easier in any way," says Niro Feliciano, a cognitive psychotherapist and mom of four. "We are going to see a grief-like process unfold in response to these losses with a range of emotions, from shock and disbelief to anger and sadness, and even in many cases, depression. The pendulum will swing from moment to moment much like when we experience a death because in many ways this is one. We have to be prepared for that as parents."

The Future Feels Uncertain

Although upset, I was grateful that I would get to see my family again and for my school, who had prioritized my safety. However, I returned home to find my brother, a high school senior, just as conflicted as I was about the situation. Our county had closed his high school, and although he was excited not to have class, the closure put an indefinite end to his baseball season, which he had worked so hard for after rehabbing from shoulder surgery in the fall. He and his classmates are graduating at the end of the semester, but as of now, they are still anxious to know what will happen to their prom and graduation ceremony, given the rapid spread of the virus.

How Teens Are Coping

To cope, a lot of teens have turned to social media. Our school meme pages offer a sense of community and comic relief as we can see what others are thinking and how they are handling the situation. The administrators of the page also post up-to-date memos from the school and the faculty to keep students informed when we aren’t always the first to be notified. On TikTok we find a release and distraction as viral dance trends and challenges allow us to vent our feelings and actions during this time. These platforms are keeping us in the know by reflecting real world data and information.

How Parents Can Help

"The silver lining is that for the last decade, we have wished for kids to possess those non-cognitive qualities that will help them get through life and are the predictors of true success—qualities such as grit and resilience and the ability to get through disappointment and move on," says Feliciano.

She adds that parents need to empathize. "There is no way we can take away this pain, and most of what we can offer will not soften the blow," she says. "What we can do is sit with them through it, let them cry, let them be angry, let them feel pain, and validate all of it."

Felciano also suggests parents reassure teens of your love for them and how proud you are of them and all they have done. "This is a culture where we derive our worth and self-esteem by what we do," she says. "We are about to see that you can cancel a lacrosse tournament, the prom, a soccer championship, the SATs, a major conference, and life will go on." It's important to remind your teens that they are still valuable and worthy, now more so than ever. She adds, "We are holding onto the most important things in life right now—our loved ones and our health."

Ryan Walker is an 19-year-old military child. She is currently in her first year at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study where she is concentrating in photography and social justice.

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