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What We Can Do for our Kids in a Pandemic

Published in ChicagoNow, July 28, 2020

Clearly, our kids are hurting during this pandemic. One of the most poignant reminders of the pain experienced by students locked out of their normal lives is a three-minute film, Numb – a short film, created by Liv McNeil. McNeil admits that, “I for sure haven’t been enjoying quarantine, but some have it worse. We have all been going through stuff right now, especially with Black Lives Matter, my struggles are in no way comparable to some things people are going though right now. This is my own experience, some are a whole lot worse than mine. I’m just showing what I know.”

This film, with music by the band M83, My Tears are Becoming a Sea, was a school project that expresses what McNeil’s experiences and feels. With many schools starting the year with remote learning due to the pandemic, parents worry about the impact of screens, isolation, and virtual learning on the mental health of their children.

My daughter, Alissa Levy Chung, a clinical and developmental psychologist who teaches at Northwestern University, shared some of her thoughts in response to McNeil’s film. She stresses the importance of balancing different risks. “Just keeping teens home all the time for a year is not going to work. They get depressed, anxious, act out and do unsafe things, or some combination of those.” In the absence of regular school, she suggests using empty school and community buildings and outdoor spaces to have small, in person activities and clubs that kids love.

Among her ideas:

  • The sports seasons could be rearranged to do the ones that are safer now and move the others to the spring.

  • Small musical ensembles and theatre and dance groups could perform outdoors.

  • Older students could work in small groups with peers to do their academics (no tutors needed for most).

  • Students who do need to be in school to learn or to be safe should be. Unemployed recent college grads could be trained remotely by teachers to implement the curriculum.

“It won’t be risk free, but left to their own devices, students will do riskier things.” We must get creative. We can’t just wait this out.

Two examples of creative programming that involve my local grandchildren are Dance Center Evanston (DCE) and The Cove School. Granted, both are private institutions and have more latitude than our public schools, but their creative approaches could be replicated elsewhere.

Recently, DCE has started holding outdoor classes for small groups of dancers. The beach ballet class pictured below enabled masked and socially distanced students to practice with their peers in a safe setting.

These teens had been practicing the best they could, following zoom lessons alone at home. What a difference being outside with peers made for their happiness and mental health. DCE has also run backyard classes for children ages 8-11, and has made improvements to their dance studio. They upgraded their HVAC to reduce the presence of viruses, bacteria, and allergens. Waiting spaces, dressing rooms, and water fountains have been closed. Face masks are required everywhere, including in classes. Studio rooms will be cleaned and sanitized between classes. Class sizes will be reduced to maintain social distancing (minimum of six feet apart). All students and staff will have their temperature checked upon entering, with hand sanitizer available at the entrance and in each studio.

In another example of creativity, when the spring high school musical, Shrek, was cancelled because The Cove School closed its doors in March, students in the production filmed their parts at home. Through the magic of technology, these individual performances were combined to create a movie version of the musical. Take my word for it – it was amazing. To make it even more fun for the students, Cove showed the production in drive-in movie form in their parking lot as well as live streamed via Zoom.

As a small, private school for students with significant learning disabilities, Cove understood the importance of in-person school for its population, and made many changes to accommodate those who wanted to attend school. In addition to the usual face masks, hand washing, hand sanitizing, social distancing, and wellness screenings/temperature checks, Cove implemented the following:

  • Staggered arrivals and dismissals

  • Using their outdoor space as much as possible

  • Placing students in small pods for learning rather than changing rooms for different subjects

  • Focusing on students’ social-emotional issues

  • Eliminating after school activities for now

  • Having lunch in the classroom with social distancing

  • Purchasing new desks, at which students can sit or stand, which can be safely spaced in a classroom

  • Upgrading bathrooms to touch-less systems

  • Using plexiglass where appropriate

  • Adding an air ionization system

A few days ago, I drove by the Evanston Rose Garden where I saw a small group of socially distanced and masked string players with a sign, “Enjoy our music from a safe distance.” The students looked so happy to be creating music together. People who happened to walk by were treated to something beautiful. Perhaps music teachers, either from public schools or private instructors, could help their students organize mini-ensembles.

When it gets too cold to be outside in our area, we will have to find ways to open doors and create opportunities for students wearing masks, in small groups, in decently large rooms with ventilation to have some in-person experiences. If we are still not using our school buildings and community centers, let’s at least open up some of the larger spaces for student activities.

Liv McNeil mentions a COVID-19 youth mental health resource hub for teens in Ontario, Canada who have been affected by isolation. If you know of similar local resources, please share them.


by Laurie Levy
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