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This week marks a full two months since COVID-19 prompted the closure of schools across our state.  As officials turn their attention to the staged re-opening of Connecticut, many youth and young adults are grappling with the loss of monumental milestones like graduation ceremonies and are still reeling from a pandemic in which so many dimensions of their lives have gone publicly unacknowledged, unconsidered, and unsupported.

Laura McCargar

In the first days and initial weeks following school shutdowns, there was a flurry of discussion about how to support continuity in student learning.  The primary challenge highlighted by those conversations was one of technology: students need access to online learning.  The envisioned solution was presented in equally simplistic terms: get young people access to laptops.

Young people have shouldered a tremendous weight in the midst of this crisis, and strategies undertaken in the name of recovery must honor the complexity of their realities and center what youth need and deserve in this moment and beyond.

Here are three ways to start.

Acknowledge that young people hold multiple identities.  We must refrain from taking a one-dimensional view of young people.  They are more than just students.  They are brothers, sisters, children, caretakers, income earners, and adolescents in significant moments of growth and transition in their own lives.

In the face of COVID-19, they are not only acclimating to a new version of what it looks like to be a “student,” many are also playing a pivotal role in keeping households going.  With family members that are essential workers, many young people are feeling alone, isolated, and are shouldering responsibilities for the care and learning of younger siblings and cousins as well as their own.

Young people with jobs whose earnings supported themselves and their families have lost income at a moment when it is most needed. Young people who battle anxiety and depression are facing new triggers with even fewer supports.  Young people who may reside in homes that are a source of trauma or abuse are finding themselves at even greater risk of harm.  Young people who are gender fluid or identify as LGBTQ in public spaces may not be able to do so at home.

Explicitly name and address the deeply entrenched race and class inequities in our state which create and perpetuate the structural obstacles and barriers young people face.   Coronavirus is causing some people to see and understand these inequities for the first time; meanwhile, young people of color know all too well that the coronavirus is not only exposing these inequities but could also deepen and widen them.

While the coronavirus impacts everyone, we also know it does not impact people equally.  There is still much work to be done on data collection, but we know that black people and people of color are contracting the virus at higher rates and with more severe outcomes.  The “pre-existing conditions” that increase COVID-19’s threat are not simply about health but about structural racism in all facets of our society – environmental injustices which place low income communities of color at greater risk of asthma, inequitable access to quality health care, unsafe conditions for working class people who are deemed “essential” but not valued, compensated or protected as such.

The historic racial bias in our criminal justice system combined with the state’s refusal to release incarcerated individuals and implement meaningful protection has left young people in deep fear of losing loved ones who lives have been needlessly placed at risk.

Young people who are undocumented or who live in families with mixed immigration status are unable to access health care and financial safety net supports like unemployment and stimulus funds.  References to the “digital divide” in access to technology are a euphemistic proxy for an explicit acknowledgement of our state’s long-standing failure to equitably resource schools in black and brown communities.  These inequities are not new – and eliminating them must be as central as our commitment to eradicating the virus itself.

Talk with young people, not about them.  Young people know what is and what is not working for them, their families and their communities.  Yet, those in positions of authority with access to resources and power to make decisions seldom ask young people their perspective and analysis, what they need, want, envision – much less heed the possibilities and solutions they voice.  Young people are incredibly creative and innovative.  Historically, their bold vision for a more just future has propelled our country’s movements for change.

As the leader of a philanthropic organization dedicated to advancing youth-led social change across the state, we have been listening and learning from our grantee partners and have  heard directly from more than 300 young people over the past several weeks.  Many have asserted that they do not want a return to a “normal” hallmarked by unjust and inequitable access and opportunity.

If we lean into it, we can extract from this moment an opportunity to imagine a transformative way forward – and young people can and will help us get there.  It is not young people’s responsibility to “fix” this current crisis, but there is also no real, lasting way out of it without them.

Laura McCargar is the President of the Perrin Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicating to building environments that support youth as leaders of social change across Connecticut. 

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