By Rainesford Stauffer
In November, 20-year-old Abbey Perl left her job at the United States Postal Service in New Jersey and moved to Texas. It felt like the right move: Perl was in a bad place mentally, she told MTV News, and the new job and internship she secured there brought “so much joy” back into her life. Plus, she could easily continue to pursue the Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration she’s working toward as an online student.
Now, she’s in a COVID-19 epicenter, and the workplace she had been so passionate about closed indefinitely in mid-March. In the weeks that followed, Perl found herself trying to avoid old habits, like misusing substances and grappling with a lack of motivation.
“It seems as though, as I get my shit together, I revert back to what I was trying to flee,” she said.
Perl is one of untold numbers of high school and college students feeling thoroughly displaced as the novel coronavirus pandemic rapidly alters everything from school to work to family life. Beginning in March, colleges and schools across the country closed in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus; as a result, students have been forced to pivot to remote learning, often without the resources they need to ensure academic success. They’re grappling with being laid off from jobs, losing internships, having work-study jobs canceled, and sometimes, increased responsibilities as caretakers for younger siblings or elderly relatives. Some may feel unsafe in their homes, or are suddenly facing houselessness. And given one in four Americans live with a chronic illness, chances are they may be worried about someone they love getting sick — or even getting sick themselves: Over 60 percent of young people are worried that they or someone in their family will be exposed to the coronavirus, and Black and Latinx young people are even more fearful than their white peers..
Low-income students are also experiencing deeper inequities, and a survey by Common Sense Media found that 41 percent of teenagers haven’t attended one online class. The majority of students reported that not being able to keep up with their schoolwork worried them, and 42 percent report being lonelier than usual right now. Young people are also often navigating all of these new responsibilities and emotions without access to counselors, and are grappling with guilt — both internalized and from outside sources — over not being “productive enough,” despite the world all but collapsing around them.
For Perl, it’s been difficult to focus on school, even though her 60-hour work weeks are currently a thing of the past. “How do I manage my time when I have all the time in the world?” she asked. “Thoughts pop up in my head like, ‘Will I ever finish college?’ [or] ‘Is it even worth it?’” Going to her college graduation was important to Perl, whose high school career had previously been disrupted; now, it’s been postponed.
"Thoughts pop up in my head like, ‘Will I ever finish college?’ [or] ‘Is it even worth it?’"
During young adulthood, when so much is already in and about transition, balancing a new kind of learning with surviving in a world absent of familiar structures and routines can feel disorienting. And school is often a safe haven to many people: It’s where students have access to the internet; where victims of domestic violence can access valuable resources; and where young people experiencing food insecurity can turn for a meal.
One of the most daunting elements of the current pandemic is a matter of timeline. “We don't have a clear end to this,” Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told MTV News. “And without a clear end, that means you have to create a new baseline, and a new normal that you can survive.”
Because students are navigating multiple responsibilities at once, their anxiety can multiply quickly, and being at a level ten of anxiety for an extended period of time is like running a marathon: Not only will you be physically exhausted, Gold said, you’re also going to struggle with necessities like concentration and sleep.
As a result, it’s crucial to find coping strategies that take anxiety down to a manageable level. Sometimes those strategies look like hobbies — whether it is TikTok, painting, or taking walks — and Gold points out that what might have worked previously may not fit into this new normal. For example, if you once watched TV or played video games to unwind, she explains, current levels of screentime overdrive might make those former safe spaces feel stressful. “You do need to figure out ‘what does it mean’ to cope in this current climate?” she said. “That might mean you're sort of trial-and-erroring things.”
Sanah Jivani, a 22-year-old student studying non-profit leadership and education, culture, and society at the University of Pennsylvania, told MTV she’s had to come up with entirely new coping strategies, in addition to establishing a new routine for her now-online classes. She relied on her university for resources as a first-generation college student; when the university closed, she lost her job and ability to pay rent. Now, Jivani has also lost her love of learning — she’s too focused on survival and having her basic needs met. “Growing up in a household that often struggled with domestic violence, going to school was my safe space that often provided both emotional and physical safety,” she said.
Jivani, who founded the Love Your Natural Self Foundation, which creates K-12 programming guides for social and emotional learning, also feels mounting pressure to help address the impact COVID-19 has had on students’ mental health. And she’s also learning how to cope herself, primarily by trying to find small things to look forward to throughout the day, including reading fiction romance novels to rediscover her love of reading, and using overripe bananas from a friend’s apartment to make chocolate chip banana muffins.
Even so, those small joys aren’t without their weights. “I feel selfish sometimes for navigating my own mental illness knowing there are so many individuals struggling,” she said. “I have to continuously remind myself that I am not ‘doing nothing.’ I am coping. I am grieving major losses and changes, and it's important that I give myself grace.”
Because young peoples’ circumstances and experiences vary so drastically, there is no one-size-fits-all coping solution, particularly when students find themselves in positions when other responsibilities understandably take priority over school. Lexi Jones, a 21-year-old nursing student in Kentucky, wakes up earlier than her 2-year-old son does so that she can listen to a lecture before she fixes their breakfast and plays outside with him. She then dives into more school work, including lectures and lab assignments, while he naps.
"I have to continuously remind myself that I am not ‘doing nothing.’ I am coping."
Ordinarily, Jones’ son would attend daycare while she attended classes; she said her professors have been supportive, and even gave out their personal phone numbers to help out students. Her family, however, hasn’t adapted quite as seamlessly. “We are still adjusting to the switch to online schooling. “I feel that sometimes family members forget that we are still in school even though we physically aren't attending,” she said, adding that she’s definitely still adjusting to the switch herself.
“My family likes to do different activities to stay busy and can sometimes forget that we [students] still are responsible for doing the same amount of work,” even though she’s no longer physically in her classrooms, Jones said.
Twenty-two percent of all undergraduates are parents, and a report by the AARP found that 35 percent of the 10 million young people who serve as caretakers are between the ages of 18 and 24. Others are younger still: 17-year-old Krithi Sankar feels she's taken on more of a "motherly-sisterly role” because one of her parents is experiencing untreated mental illness, which has made sheltering-in-place and school workload challenging. Krithi and her twin sister assist in taking care of their middle school-aged brothers, in addition to helping in the kitchen and with their homework..
"I think I haven't been able to juggle it all successfully, to be honest," Krithi told MTV News. "There's always one category or the other that has been slipping but I've just been trying to be kinder to myself." She’s also taking on these responsibilities while navigating her own grief: The high school senior had been looking forward to rites of passage like prom and graduation, both of which have been cancelled.
Even just the chaos of new schedules can radically shift expectations for young people. Clara Richards, a 17-year-old high school student in North Carolina, was used to school starting at 7 a.m., followed by track practice, horseback riding, or work, depending on the season. Her school’s closure upended that routine. “Basically, as both a child and as a student, it feels like the general expectation is that I’m on summer break yet I still have a lot of work to do,” she said. While Clara has some Zoom calls, most of her schoolwork is self-directed, which means constantly checking email, Canvas, Google Classrooms, and individual teacher’s websites, because she’s constantly worried about missing something. As a result, she’s had to define what she prioritizes.
“The problem for me then is that it’s so hard to factor in time for decompression and “downtime,” Clara added. “I’m just not going to prioritize that when I have a paper to write or notes to take.”
Clara feels extra pressure to be productive, but that she often doesn’t hear back from teachers when she turns work in online, which limits her ability to push herself. Remote learning has even changed the way she unwinds after the school day ends. “Since all my school stuff moved online, I don’t ‘recharge’ by watching TV or going on the internet,” she said. “It just holds no appeal anymore.”
A common misconception in the era of social distancing is one of hyper-productivity, as though more free time is a given for young people whose schedules have shifted significantly. Yet challenges to write the next great novel or establish a new workout routine ignore the fact that getting from one day to the next should be enough — and rest can actually assist in keeping people healthy.
That’s the case for 17-year-old Victor Ye, who admitted he feels pressure to be extra productive in the face of school closures. “I have always been a person that maximized my schedule with activities and tasks, he told MTV News. While the California teen appreciates that he can stay in touch with friends and teachers online, he misses spending valuable time with them before his high school career ends and friends scatter to different universities.
“I wish people knew that the impact of COVID-19 on students extends farther than just the academic component,” he said. “We have spent a lot of our lives at school; it has not only been a safe haven, but also a place where we cultivated great friendships and relationships. Technology cannot replace the human interaction that helps us socialize in a meaningful way.”
According to Gold, it’s normal for many students to experience a sense of grief in watching what you’ve been working for your entire life fall apart. “You're going home, you're doing classes at home, home might be unsafe, you might not have your summer internship, you might not have a job, you might not be able to get a job,” Gold said. Life is in complete disarray, and many young people “don’t have a sense of purpose” and feel “very lost,” she added, given that the life they knew, up until this point, operated in four-year chunks devoted to academic milestones and seasonal structures.
Now, COVID-19 has interrupted what it means to be a student, and a young person preparing to forge their way in the world with more questions than answers. Their stressors aren’t invisible; they’re the new normal.
"It's terrifying. Absolutely terrifying," Krithi said. She doesn’t know how to prepare for adulthood right now, but she’s being forced to learn in real time.