While the economic and health costs of the pandemic and corresponding shutdowns have been widely covered, the effects on students deserve more attention. Between the shift to online learning and the pause of youth sports and other activities, students have been faced with an unprecedented challenge in adapting to ever-changing circumstances. The experience has certainly varied for students in different places, as states like Florida began reopening schools in the fall, while most others have continued with remote learning.
The consequences of prolonged online learning are not just educational setbacks, but also impediments in social growth. The social attachments that children naturally develop through consistent peer interaction have been severed by shutdowns. There’s plenty to be said about kids not being able to learn directly from their teacher in the classroom, but the loss of classmates, friends, and coaches amplifies the dire situation students are facing.
For all of us, social relationships often develop by virtue of physical proximity. With some exceptions, most friendships emerge from a shared school, workplace, or community. We gain affection for the people and places we frequent, recognizing the positive role that they play in our day-to-day lives.
For children, this reality may be less consciously understood, but is arguably even more important. Children lack the history of long-term friendships as well as the autonomy to coordinate activities, making them dependent on others. Through interaction in the classroom, in sports, and other extracurricular activities, they gravitate toward those who are familiar and share some common interest. In that sense, the socialization of children serves as a foundation for what they will experience as adults, with shared experience serving as the common denominator.
However, the transition to virtual life has been much easier for adults already acclimated to the technology that has made such a change possible in the first place. This is not to suggest that virtual meetings are a sufficient substitute for in-person conversation, but that most adults already had some level of comfort and familiarity with online work prior to the pandemic. As such, COVID-induced closures have disproportionately afflicted children precisely because they are so reliant on physical interaction with peers. Adults have the benefit of established networks and the ability to frequently connect with family, friends, and colleagues, while children can only do so much in the realm of virtual communication
Though many college students—myself included—lament not being able to see our peers on campus and enjoy The College Experience™, the limitations of Zoom learning affect younger students much more. It may not replicate in-person lectures, but the social and cognitive development that college students have already experienced, along with their technological literacy, has made the switch much more bearable.
The robust social life that many college students are accustomed to may not be currently available, but that has not stopped them from staying connected. Campus clubs at universities across the country have successfully persisted in the virtual sphere, holding meetings and events that foster community among students. Likewise, many students have independently organized Bible studies, hikes, study sessions, and more, all of which have been instrumental in helping them build and maintain friendships with peers.
The revival of college sports has also been a major symbol of a return to normalcy, as student-athletes retain their competitive spirit and sense of belonging. Where youth sports have been permitted to return, this has also been the case and has been tremendously beneficial to young athletes.
Surf Soccer Club in San Diego, CA recently revealed just how important their organization has been for youth athletes and parents alike. “We are told by parents daily that we are the ONLY area of normalcy in the lives of their kids and that their activity in sport is one of the only things keeping them from depression,” the club explained in a recent letter.
However, for those who have been unable to play sports again—as well as students who do not participate in social organizations outside of school—normalcy remains lost in the past. Asking our students to indefinitely sacrifice childhood friendships and experiences risks doing lasting damage to a generation that has already overcome so much.
The somber stories of students falling behind in school, losing interest in the things that brought them happiness and purpose, and the most disheartening cases of depression and suicide all reveal the severe toll that the pandemic and school closures have had on children.
Young adults have also suffered immensely, with CDC data indicating that one in four contemplated suicide during the summer of 2020. The numbers are even more concerning for children, however, with a Texas study showing that youth suicide attempts nearly doubled during the pandemic. There’s no question that shutting down schools, sports, and other youth institutions is a driving factor in the pain that our children are experiencing.
That’s not to say that all hope is lost—far from it. Students throughout the nation have shown incredible resilience over the past year, which is an encouraging sign for our youngest generation. As vaccine distribution kicks into high gear, it’s vital that we recognize the necessity of rebuilding the student community through school, sports, and other associations.
Michael Huling is a Graduate Research Assistant at Pepperdine University’s Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership