In Hobbs, New Mexico, the high school closed and football was cancelled, while just across the state line in Texas, students seemed to be living nearly normal lives. Here’s how pandemic school closures exact their emotional toll on young people.
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Everything looks the same on either side of the Texas-New Mexico border in the great oil patch of the Permian Basin. There are the pump jacks scattered across the plains, nodding up and down with metronomic regularity. There are the brown highway signs alerting travelers to historical markers tucked away in the nearby scrub. There are the frequent memorials of another sort, to the victims of vehicle accidents. And there are the astonishingly deluxe high school football stadiums. This is, after all, the region that produced “Friday Night Lights.”
The city of Hobbs, population just under 40,000, sits on the New Mexico side, as tight to the border as a wide receiver’s toes on a sideline catch. From the city’s eastern edge to the Texas line is barely more than two miles. From Hobbs to the Texas towns of Seminole and Denver City is a half-hour drive — next door, by the standards of the vast Southwestern plains.
In the pandemic year of 2020, though, the two sides of the state line might as well have been in different hemispheres. Texas’s response to the coronavirus was freewheeling. Most notably, it gave local school districts leeway in deciding whether to open for in-person instruction in August, and in conservative West Texas, many districts seized the opportunity to do so, for all grades, all the way up through high school. Students wore masks in the hallways and administrators did contact tracing for positive cases of coronavirus, but everything else went pretty much as usual, including sports. On Friday nights, high schools still played football, with fans in the stands.
New Mexico’s response last year was the opposite. The state, led by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, took one of the most aggressive lockdown stances in the country, and issued stringent guidelines for school reopening, so stringent that Hobbs was allowed to bring back only a sliver of its students for in-person instruction.
Kooper had always gotten straight A’s, despite a tendency to leave big assignments to the last minute. He charmed classmates and teachers alike with his playful ebullience. His natural high spirits had carried him through his life’s primary challenge to date, his parents’ breakup when he was a small child. He started playing organized football at age 5 and could not get enough of it. He played basketball, too, but football had his heart. When the youth minister at church once apologized for missing one of his high school games, Kooper reassured him that it was okay, that he did not depend on an audience: “I play for myself,” he said.
Kooper started heading off to quarterback camps and private training — in Atlanta, New Orleans and Tucson, among other cities — hoping to better his odds of getting to play in college, an aspiration that became more feasible as he sprouted to 6 feet, 4 inches tall, ideal for throwing over linemen, if only he could get his agility and coordination to catch up with his height. His parents encouraged him to aim for the Ivy League, but he knew its football was middling. Instead, he set his sights on Stanford, which excelled in sports and academics, and which he had visited for another football camp.
For student-athletes aspiring to play in college, junior year is key. It’s that year’s video that recruiters will look at, and that year’s grades that admissions officers will scrutinize. Kooper already had a highlight reel, and it included some nice-looking throws, but it was from his sophomore season on the junior varsity team. Junior year was everything: He would be vying for the starting QB slot on varsity and taking a fistful of Advanced Placement courses. He would, in general, be getting to enjoy the experience of being Kooper Davis, a well-liked kid in a small city where the admiration flowed even from the youngsters he helped out at church, one of whom, a 9-year-old boy, was overheard gleefully reporting to his father that Kooper Davis knew his name.
But the start of the school year arrived, and there was no school. Kooper and his classmates would take their courses at home using an online program, with barely any contact with teachers or each other. His teammates would be allowed to practice only in small pods, which left them mostly doing just weightlifting sessions and agility drills. There would be no actual games.
The hope was that all this would be temporary. That was what the kids heard from the adults in charge, and they tried to believe it.
The coronavirus pandemic has been not only a health catastrophe, but an epic failure of national government. The result of the abdication of federal leadership in 2020 was an atomization of decision-making that affected the lives and well-being of millions of people. States, and frequently individual school districts — sometimes even individual schools and sports leagues — have been forced to grapple with emerging and occasionally conflicting science that has sought to decode the mysteries of a newly discovered virus. Local governmental and educational officials — the vast majority of whom aren’t epidemiologists or experts on indoor airflow — have had to formulate policy under intense time pressure while being buffeted by impassioned constituencies on every side and facing the reality that any decision would impose costs on somebody.
One of the few aspects of this terrible pandemic to be grateful for is that it has taken a vastly lesser toll on children and young adults than its major precursor of last century, the flu pandemic of 1918-1920. That earlier pandemic’s victims tended to be in the prime of life, withmortality peaking around age 28.
The novel coronavirus, by contrast, has hit the elderly the hardest. Themedian age for COVID-19 fatalities in the U.S. is about 80. Of the nearly 500,000 deaths in the U.S. analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of early March, 252 were among those 18 or younger — five hundredths of a percent of the total. The CDC has also recorded about 2,000 cases of aninflammatory syndrome that has afflicted some children after they contracted the virus, resulting in about 30 additional deaths. Doctors are still uncertain whether children who survived that syndrome will experience long-term heart issues or other health problems.
Plenty of parents continue to worry for their children’s health amid the pandemic. But the primary concern from a public health standpoint has been the role that children and young adults might play in transmitting the disease to others. A growing body of evidence suggests that younger children are the least likely to transmit the virus, but that as children growolder, their capacity for transmission approaches that of adults.
This has posed a conundrum from early in the pandemic: How much should children be prevented from doing outside the home, to keep them from contributing to community transmission of a highly contagious virus? Or to put it more broadly: How much of normal youth should they be asked to sacrifice? It has been a difficult balance to strike, on both a societal and family level.
In many parts of the country, particularly cities and towns dominated by Democrats, concerns about virus spread by children has resulted in all sorts of measures: closures of playgrounds, requirements that kids older than 2 wear masks outdoors, rigid restrictions on campus life at colleges that reopened. “We should be more careful with kids,” wrote Andy Slavitt, a Medicare and Medicaid administrator under President Barack Obama who was named senior advisor for President Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force, in a Jan. 3 tweet. “They should circulate less or will become vectors. Like mosquitos carrying a tropical disease.”
In Los Angeles, county supervisor Hilda Solis, a former Obama labor secretary, urged young people to stay home, noting the risk of them infecting older members of their households. “One of the more heartbreaking conversations that our healthcare workers share is about these last words when children apologize to their parents and grandparents for bringing COVID into their homes for getting them sick,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “And these apologies are just some of the last words that loved ones will ever hear as they die alone.”
As many of these experts have noted, the cost of restrictions on youth has gone beyond academics. The CDC found that the proportion of visits to the emergency room by adolescents between ages 12 and 17 that were mental-health-related increased 31% during the span of March to October 2020, compared with the same months in 2019.A study in the March 2021 issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, of people aged 11 to 21 visiting emergency rooms found “significantly higher” rates of “suicidal ideation” during the first half of 2020 (compared to 2019), as well as higher rates of suicide attempts, though the actual number of suicides remained flat.
Finally, the nationwide surge in gun violence since the start of the pandemic has included, in many cities, a sharp rise incrimes involving juveniles, including many killed or arrested during what would normally be school time. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, a Washington, D.C., suburb where school buildings have remained closed, seven teenagers were charged with murder in just the first five weeks of this year.
“An entire generation between the ages of 5 and 18 has been effectively removed from society at large,”wrote Maryland pediatrician Lavanya Sithanandam in The Washington Post. “They do not have the same ability to vote or speak out.”
It has, instead, been left largely up to parents to monitor their children for signs of declining mental health as they determine whether to allow their kids to return to college or summer camp, to have a friend over, to go to the mall.
My family was among those facing these decisions. Our sons, now 16 and 13, have had fully remote learning in their Baltimore public schools for nearly a year now. For them, the primary release from the hours staring at the laptop screen would be sports, and for us, the answer was clear: My wife and I would let them play. The boys’ respective high school and rec-league baseball seasons were canceled last spring, but their club teams were still playing through the summer and fall. This proved a godsend, a way for the boys to keep being active outdoors and around other kids, doing something they loved to do. For my older son, the baseball meant frequent traveling to tournaments out of state, in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Almost every weekend, we’d be back on near-empty highways, staying in near-empty motels, subsisting on endless takeout chicken sandwiches whenever we couldn’t find an outdoor place for a meal.
This all started before the resumption of Major League Baseball and other professional sports, and it sometimes seemed as if our tournaments were the only serious competitive sports happening in the country, a sort of speakeasy baseball. Some precautions were taken, such as umpires calling balls and strikes from behind the mound instead of behind the catcher at home plate. The boys and their parents wore their masks inside the motels; at games, the parents spread out in the bleachers or on the sidelines. The parents ran the political gamut: liberals from Baltimore, conservatives from rural towns in Pennsylvania. But there was an implicit agreement that we were fortunate that our kids could keep playing, and we wouldn’t do anything to screw it up. Those weekends remain for me some of the only redeeming moments of an awful year.