Thursday, March 4, 2021
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We Owe Our Youth Thanks — and a Better Response — for Bearing Burdens of COVID-19

As in-person instruction returned to Penn State in these COVID-strained times, we’d be wise to remember our students. Across this country a generation of young people are being asked to shoulder a difficult burden in our cause. 

The toll of these times was evident during Tuesday night’s televised Presidential Town Hall. A mother with her second-grade daughter standing beside her asked President Biden a question about what to tell her children about their COVID-related fears.

In the daily news the juxtaposition of that second-grade girl in Milwaukee with images of older people and those with pre-existing conditions getting vaccines struck a chord. Seeing college students back on campus socially-distancing with masks on should remind us of who we’re asking to make the biggest changes to their lives.

This nation remains in a fight to overcome a pandemic. Deliberating actions of the previous president does not solve today’s problems. History and time will be our judge.

As we fight on, we must recognize the tolls paid by people in this fight.

Certainly, healthcare and frontline workers are at the most risk. So are people in your grocery stores and other essential businesses showing up at work when the threats were unknowable. This nation owes them our enduring appreciation.

But there is also a generation of young people who’ve been asked to make dramatic changes to the life they’ve known. Most people, by nature, crave certainty, routine and predictability. For our students, that has been upended for nearly a year. That upheaval is ongoing and will have an impact on the lives ahead of them. 

For those of us who’ve seen many decades, a year or two seems almost insignificant. But for those enjoying the fleeting years of childhood and college, a year seems an eternity.

Yes we’ve grown weary, but the journey’s length is of our own making. As adults politicized the pandemic response, we delayed the march toward victory. But while many fought and stalled others were forced to act.

College students were ripped out of school last spring. Those that returned to their campuses this fall faced burdensome restrictions altering learning and life on campus. Many schoolchildren have yet to return to classrooms, and those that have returned are finding their routines and school life as they knew it to be drastically different.

Socialization has been curtailed. Masks and distancing remain constant reminders of a looming threat. The fears of the unknown articulated by that mother’s town hall question weigh heavily on the minds of our kids.

We’ve plunged them into the fray to protect the old and the most vulnerable. We’ve asked them to lose their youth to help us all survive. Much like the battles fought over the course of human history, the old send the young to the front.

And yes, we’re not shipping them off to war or to refugee camps where they are living in squalor. But we are demanding they do things many adults won’t do. Underestimating the impact of the disruption to their lives puts their futures at risk. 

More broadly, the economic toll has put many parents out of work. Proud people line up at food banks out of necessity. Those images take a toll on children whose foundations in life now seem to be resting on the uncertain grounds of shifting sands.

Our younger generations have battled addiction fueled by companies pumping cheap pills into every corner of this country. Those problems will likely become more pronounced as the social interaction young people seek remains curtailed. 

It is easy as an older person selfishly concerned for our well-being to write off this generation of young people as soft and spoiled. Most generations, as they age, harbor resentment toward the younger generation. That is not new. 

But we’d be wise to recognize and own up to our failings. Our “leaders” have failed them in many ways.

Across business and government, we’re dominated by interests that protect the pursuit of power and money over all else. There is no more striking example of that than fighting over a decided election or seeing a roaring stock market as the bodies pile up from COVID, suicides and overdoses. 

We’d be wise to heed Penn State football coach Rip Engle’s words. When one of his assistants would criticize the players, he’d say, “Don’t bitch about the kids; they’re the only ones we’ve got.”

Rather than complain about where we are, or about the students being back in town, let’s appreciate the burdens we’ve placed on them and the toll it’s taken. It’s not easy for anyone to deny a most basic human nature, the desire for normalcy. 

And we’ve asked them all to do it to protect those who are far more vulnerable to this pandemic.

To all the students who’ve had to do things many of us have refused to do ourselves, we owe you thanks for your efforts. While we bickered over refusing to do so much as wear a mask, Rome has been burning around you.

When history judges us, the wise historians will recognize that you were among the people who were asked to do the most. And in the here and now, let’s all accelerate our response to help you grab back the youth fleeing you all too quickly.