When schools and universities reopened this fall, the nation saw a rise in coronavirus cases, with a surprising amount happening among teens and college students. Several outbreaks could be traced back to parties and social gatherings, like one at a Massachusetts high school where over 50 teens attended, and another at an off-campus party for University of Denver students. Now in the depths of a second wave spreading around the country, numerous schools and colleges have shut their doors once more. But with many planning to reopen come January, will it be possible to prevent young people from participating in the same risky behaviors over winter break that may have prompted schools to close down in the first place?
“Psychologically and developmentally, young people are impulsive,” says Regine Muradian, Psy.D., a psychologist based in Los Angeles, Calif. “They usually expect their needs to be met instantly and in general have little patience.”
Teen impulsivity is nothing new, of course, and while it’s certainly part of the reason some young people choose to shirk safety precautions, it’s not the only one. Muradian explains that the pandemic has had an unexpected effect on young people who were once heavily connected to their technology even while spending time with friends and family in person.
“It’s interesting how pre-pandemic young people were more disconnected as a result of devices, whereas now they see the important value of being together,” she says, acknowledging that young people this past year have lost out on a lot of momentous socialization opportunities. “We don’t like it when things are taken away, as it reduces our control over our lives. Young people are feeling this lack of control hence they are having difficulty abiding with COVID rules as they are craving control.”
Mackenzie Abbott, a freshman at the University of Florida, can attest to feeling this loss. Due to the pandemic, she hasn’t had the chance to have a typical college experience.
“We were high school seniors and lost our graduation, prom and our last hurrah and now are losing our college experience,” she says.
While the school has attempted to help students get acquainted at virtual meetups, Abbott says it’s not the same and it’s been a struggle to make new friends for her as well as for others she knows.
“My friends on campus are struggling. I’ve talked to over 10 of my friends who say they are so sad and just sit in their dorm rooms all day wishing things were different,” Abbott admits.
Isolation is among the many reasons so many young people are having trouble avoiding parties and other gatherings to begin with. In one recent case, a 16-year-old in Brunswick, Maine, took his life, leaving a note behind detailing how he felt the distance growing between him and others while he remained at home.
“I definitely have seen a decline overall in people’s mental health since the start of the pandemic. ... Many people feel trapped, as we still don’t know when things will be normal again,” says Muradian, reminding adults to “make our children’s mental health a high priority.”
Muradian advises caregivers and school staff to allow young people to talk to them about their concerns and struggles.
“It’s important that they feel heard and validated,” she adds.
She also recommends framing social distancing and quarantining as a way to help others and to remind them to think about those most vulnerable: “We need to tell them, ‘I know this is hard, I know you are feeling mad right now. I know things are not the same, but they won’t stay this way. You are protecting the people you love and that is priceless.’”
For some young people, the shirking of safety in order to get together with friends is more a matter of inconsistent messaging between local government, school leadership and parents.
“Parents and caregivers are the main gateways in helping children understand COVID safety. People are receiving confusing messages, as some schools are opening and others aren’t ... I know we need to live and continue our lives, but when you see hundreds of people in public places, one cannot help but think, ‘Lockdown? Well, why? Everything looks fine.’ This is the error and confusion occurring in kids’ minds,” says Muradian. She recommends caregivers and other adult figures give children and students regular updates on the current information about the pandemic and to essentially act as role models.
Dr. Jan Carney at the University of Vermont has been enforcing this in her own role as Associate Dean for Public Health and Health Policy at the Larner College of Medicine. She shares that UVM has implemented required weekly testing for all students (optional for faculty and staff) as well as ongoing reminders on effective safety precautions.
“The key to this is consistent messages with the Vermont Department of Health, Larner College of Medicine, University of Vermont Medical Center and the local community. Consistent messaging about wearing masks, physical distancing, uncrowded spaces and following all guidelines sets the community tone,” says Dr. Carney, who is also a Professor of Medicine at UVM.
The university has had lower rates of COVID infection than many others, with 23 cases compared to 406 cases at SUNY Albany in New York, 1,493 cases at East Carolina University in North Carolina and a whopping 2,697 cases at Texas Tech University. UVM has also implemented consequences that could lead to removal from campus and the inability to use certain facilities for those who are found breaking rules, which may be helping to curb rebellion against safety measures.
Danay Escanaverino, an entrepreneur and mother based in Virginia, has been implementing all of these suggestions with her own teenage son, Aiden Valdes.
“I honestly think it’s a combination of modeling the behavior ourselves and being vigilant. We talk a lot about our loved ones like his abuela and how we would feel if she succumbed to COVID ... It has been hard, but he is a teen and that means repeating things over and over,” she says.
Valdes says mask-wearing hasn’t been difficult for him, and that most people he knows continue to wear them, “but some wear them under their noses.” Social distancing, on the other hand, has been trying.
“Avoiding crowds in school is pretty challenging,” Valdes says, adding that he knows some peers “are still throwing parties and hanging out.”
Escanaverino says she’s allowed him to continue to play sports and practice with a close friend. “I’m pretty sure there have been times when they haven’t been perfect with compliance,” she admits.
Finally, there’s some evidence that a harm-reduction approach may also be aiding in reducing spread while acknowledging that not everyone will choose to fully isolate — which may be beneficial for young people who won’t always choose the safest options.
As Muradian recommends, “If your child has a small social circle of two or three friends I recommend that the parents connect and get on the same page in terms of limiting exposure to others, staying outside if possible, and wearing a mask.”
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
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