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Tuesday, 8 December 2020

The Pandemic School-Opening Debate: Where are the Youth Voices?


If I see one more opinion, editorial, policy recommendation, or letter claiming that kids either should or should not be sent back to school, without any reference to the actual opinions or wishes of kids, I am going to lose my mind. 

I know, I know, we have laws saying that adults don't have to listen to kids and kids have to do whatever adults say.

But seriously. This is a pandemic. Lives are at stake. It's time to start listening to young people. 

The litany of articles around this debate I've seen is disturbing. And, so far, not a single one I've read is focused on the voices of young people. 

I should note that one benefit of all of this public debate is that some people are finally being honest about the purposes of school: it's not just about "education" -- it's largely about child care and economic productivity. And, some people are beginning to take note of how school before COVID-19 wasn't all that great for many students. 

Still, almost every single one of the articles in this debate relies exclusively on anecdotal evidence and isolated narratives to conclude that school closures are "bad" or "harmful" for kids. Many don't include any data or evidence, and just summarily conclude that school closures are bad for all kids. 

Of course, I'm not trying to say that school is all bad. Or that school closures don't do harm to some children and families (they do -- and they have a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities -- especially for families with parents who work outside the home, households lacking reliable internet or computers, and families with children with special needs). I also acknowledge that school (for better or worse) serves important functions like child-care, and for some children, it is a temporary safe space. 

Moreover, I don't want to gloss over the unequal access to education and learning resources that consistently leaves marginalized and poor youth with worse options (although studies have actually shown that the pandemic isn't making the achievement gap any worse so far, which is interesting). 

That said, it's time to confront the false narrative that school closures are bad for kids across the board. It's time to confront the other side of that narrative -- that opening schools back up would be good for kids. And it's time to recognize that by ignoring youth voices, and assuming what is "good" or "bad" for kids as a group, this debate about school re-openings continues to marginalize and oppress youth. 

For those who have actually gathered or looked at real data, the results indicate that school closures may actually be improving the wellbeing of youth (as reported by youth). 

One survey about the mental health and social effects of school closures shows that school closures have actually been a good thing according to most youth and families; psychological wellbeing has improved without the stress of school

Another report found that "teens’ mental health did not collectively suffer during the pandemic when...compared [to pre-pandemic surveys]. The percentage of teens who were depressed or lonely was actually lower than in 2018." And this positive mental health occurred despite all of the trauma and challenges of the pandemic! 

Some youth are thriving in remote learning. And teens are finally getting enough sleep. The bottom line is that young people are largely reporting they are doing well without school

Moreover, recent data has shown that, on average, students are improving at reading at the same rate they did pre-pandemic. In other words, kids are learning to read even without in-person school. 

The point is that the common narratives in the media about school closures being terrible for students are just not true. Across the board, these narratives paint an oversimplified picture of schooling that serves adult -- not youth -- interests. Worse yet, these narratives ignore youth voices. 

Instead, we need to listen to and include youth in decision-making processes. And respect youth autonomy. 

Just the fact that someone even needs to point that out -- that not listening to youth about how they live their lives is somehow a legitimate option in our society -- is disturbing. 

Another point is that to "listen to youth" doesn't mean to tokenize one or two youth narratives. Just like it would be with any other marginalized group, it's inaccurate and harmful to assume that all kids have the same opinions and needs. That's just classic ignorant paternalism. 

So, here's the takeaway: adults can debate about whether to open or close public schools during the pandemic all they want -- but at the very least, listen to the people who are most affected by that choice: the youth. 


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