The coronavirus pandemic is reshaping the lives of young Americans

Published on
July 22, 2020

As the coronavirus pandemic and its economic consequences course through American society, the responses from government agencies and lawmakers will have lifelong impacts on those with the least political influence: children. Previous disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 financial crisis, and the opioid epidemic highlighted long- standing disparities across generations that were often exacerbated, rather than alleviated, by government recovery efforts. Indeed, many American neighborhoods deprived of high-quality schools, clean drinking water and safe housing overlap with those communities hit hardest by COVID-19. 

Already, the shift to remote learning has hindered low-income students who struggle with a lack of internet access, food, and mental health services, which schools have long provided. The children of essential workers, meanwhile, must endure the fear of losing parents to a virus that has taken more than 138,000 American lives. And youth of color are being buffeted by the tragic repercussions of a public health crisis fraught with racial and economic disparities. 
But as virus cases surge across the country and states debate just how much to reopen their economies, the future for a generation of young Americans appears to be growing ever more grim. Many school districts are now faced with an agonizing dilemma: return to classrooms, an option that poses heightened infection risks for students and educators, or keep the school doors closed, unleashing a second wave of academic turmoil.

If college campuses remain closed in the fall, low-income students will be at greater risk of experiencing food and housing insecurity, with minority students disproportionately affected, according to a report by the HOPE Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University. That increases their likelihood of dropping out. 
For parents who cannot work from home, the economic fallout of school closures threatens to be particularly severe, as nearly half of the nation’s child care facilities closed down — some permanently — amid state lockdowns, according to recent studies.

My 2020 National Fellowship project will explore how the pandemic is reshaping the lives of underserved youth and the adults who care for them as they reckon with systemic inequities compounded by the coronavirus. My reporting for The New York Times will shed light on the human toll of the virus on youth and families by examining the root causes and the aftermath of deaths, financial struggle and trauma in personal, unvarnished terms.

To illuminate the upheaval wrought by a microscopic pathogen, I aim to engage children, teenagers and young adults in communities across the country — no easy feat amid a pandemic that has made air travel and in-person connections potentially perilous endeavors. But these young voices are critical to authentically and accurately telling the stories I plan to write. What lessons are they learning from this crisis? And how will those lessons ripple throughout their lives? Reaching them — and forging the relationships that will empower them to open up — will take time, patience and trust.

My plan is to involve family members, mentors and community stakeholders who can shed light not only on how the younger generation is handling the myriad pressures unleashed by the pandemic, but also on the resource gaps hampering their abilities to overcome these challenges. 
At a time when the coronavirus has made health journalism ever more vital but reporting far more complicated, the National Fellowship is a valuable opportunity to learn more about these complex issues and explore innovative approaches to thinking about this coverage.