Future Tense

My PCP ordered a COVID test because I had asthma and an eye infection; I agreed because I have been downtown at protests and don’t want to put anyone at risk. The test was negative, as expected. That COVID test was ordered on a dime; meanwhile I haven’t been able to see my endocrinologist, hematologist, or neurologist in ages. I am fine and will be fine: none of my stuff is life-threatening. But I can’t help but think about all the folks with chronic illness whose care is being deferred while we manage the COVID crisis, and the epidemic of health disasters beyond the virus the pandemic will leave in its wake. That, however, is as it must be during a pandemic. Because the virus has the capacity to outrun the capacities of our medical system, the system must be prioritized to focus on testing and treatment.

What is not as it should be is the deferral of the health, education, and futures our young people. While most with chronic health challenges will have opportunities to catch up on their treatments and care once we learn more about the virus and secure the medical resources necessary to manage it, the time lost for our children will never be recovered.

Recently, images of frat parties have circulated in my social media circles as evidence of how disastrous it will be if we open in the fall. Where, I wonder, do people imagine these young people are going to go if campus is shut down? After all, there are no in-person classes this summer, and still the young people gather together. Next fall, Columbus public schools plan to offer high school classes online, but without adult role models and modeling of safe practices, do people imagine these young people won’t find each other, congregate, party? Anyone who does has either never had a teenager or forgotten themselves who they were at 16, or 20. The majority of our students are not living in dorms and not living at home; if there are no classes, no safer spaces on campus, they will make unsafe spaces for themselves in their houses, in bars, in their yards. We are deluding ourselves if we imagine online high school and college classes means we are keeping young people safer: we are in truth turning our backs on them, leaving them to fend for themselves. And then we will judge them for making bad choices, when we left them, in fact, no choices at all.

I hear my colleagues saying students should “stay home.” Yet, for students at my institution, what does that mean? Many have leases on apartments and houses for the year, many are self-supporting, and many have no safe home to return to. The campus area is home for most. Online classes just means they won’t be in our classrooms. And yet, in our classes, they would be wearing masks, which all evidence has shown work to contain the virus. By having our students in our classrooms we will help them learn how to be comfortable with masks, we can educate them about how to be in the world (because young people are largely compelled to be in the world and with other young people) as safely as these conditions allow. Without any classes, or spaces to gather in the student union or library, where will they learn this? All of their necessary and inevitable sociality will happen in spaces like those pictured below.

With campuses closed, what jobs will the students have to pay for their (now online) education? So many of our students depend on employment at libraries, cafeterias, campus offices, the student union and rec center—all of which will be non-existent. And post-pandemic there are few jobs for young people in the community, still fewer that will work to balance work schedules with course schedules.

For our K-12 students, where will students with food insecurity at home get their breakfasts and lunches? Where will those left behind by the widening digital divide gain the computer literacy, high-speed networks, and support to access their (now online) education? Where will those with unsafe homes find the counseling and the mentorship that promises a way out, a life beyond?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently came out strongly in favor of a plan for schools to open in the fall. The health care providers who think most about the health and well-being of our young people for a living made this difficult recommendation for reasons worth pausing over carefully:

There is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020. Lengthy time away from school and associated interruption of supportive services often results in social isolation, making it difficult for schools to identify and address important learning deficits as well as child and adolescent physical or sexual abuse, substance use, depression, and suicidal ideation. This, in turn, places children and adolescents at considerable risk of morbidity and, in some cases, mortality. Beyond the educational impact and social impact of school closures, there has been substantial impact on food security and physical activity for children and families.

Many of these same issues also apply in our colleges and universities, including my own. When we went home in the spring, I had students unable to access the internet during the day or at all. I had students who were returning to homes with emotional and physical violence, homes from which they had believed were finally be free. I had students returning to homes with food insecurity, or to homes where the therapy that had saved their lives was not permitted to continue, or to homes where their newly-announced sexuality or gender identity or political opinions were not welcome.

We are doing all we can do in this pandemic to save as many lives as possible. But surely we must also balance that desire with the need to save as many futures as possible as well. There is no guarantee that there will be a vaccine next year or the year after (or that the virus won’t mutate so rapidly as to make a vaccine effectively meaningless in terms of achieving herd immunity. We could be living with this virus for several years. Are we prepared to sacrifice the education and well-being of a generation of young people in order to maximize short-term survival rates in the present? If so, what kind of future are we imagining lies for all of us, and especially for the younger generation, on the other end of this.