For students, COVID-19 is the new normal. Meet two young people facing big pandemic challenges in the new academic year

By H.L. Comeriato, TDS Staff Reporter

Photos by H.L. Comeriato

Over the last 18 months, COVID-19 has shaped the way young people experience the world.

Students, in particular, have faced immense uncertainty as adults across the country made important decisions about their health, safety, education and futures.

For most, the return to in-person learning is a chance for social and emotional connection. But for students living with disabilities or compromised immune systems, the academic year comes with a frightening dilemma: risk serious, perhaps fatal, illness or miss out and fall behind.

For Mica, a sophomore at Ellet Community Learning Center, re-adjusting to in-person learning has been complicated.

At 16 months old, Mica was identified as deaf. Now a teenager, they use a combination of speech, signing, lip reading and hearing devices to communicate with their teachers and peers. 

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Within Akron Public Schools, most classes and resources for deaf students are located in the Ellet cluster, which means Mica has access to an interpreter for every class.

Nearly a decade ago, the night before they were set to begin first grade at Ritzman Community Learning Center, Mica’s parent, Emory, drove them to the emergency room at Akron Children’s Hospital. 

From the time they were born, Mica experienced frequent illnesses and infections. When they began vomiting and developed a severe headache, Emory knew something was wrong.

After more than six hours, Mica was admitted to the hospital.

As their room filled with frantic staff, someone approached Emory: “They said, ‘We don’t know what’s going on right now, but we’re almost 100% sure your kid has cancer.’”

Young people make big sacrifices

After that, everything about Mica’s life changed.

While their classmates spent the first weeks of school making new friends, Mica remained in the hospital for more than a month.

By the following year, they had become so immunocompromised that Emory cancelled their enrollment in hopes that homeschooling might help keep them safe and healthy.

In seventh grade, Mica began attending classes in person again. They completed eighth grade in person, but COVID-19 kept them learning virtually for the entire duration of their freshman year.

“At first, it was fun,” Mica says. “When everyone was online, there was a schedule, there was teachers.” 

But when other students returned to school, Mica remained online, stuck with a heavy course load, overlapping homework and little structure or oversight.

“It was like they left the kids that stayed online behind and just left them to do their own thing,” Emory says.

“There weren’t places you could go to get help,” Mica adds. “I struggled with that. How do you get the help if you don’t know what question to ask — and if you don’t know what’s being asked of you?”

Now in the tenth grade, Mica relies on medications and frequent blood transfusions to maintain a safe white blood cell count. Today, they are both healthy enough to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and to attend classes in person.

As Mica’s sophomore year approached, they began weighing their options.

Akron Public Schools announced a mask requirement on July 27, but Emory says Mica had to decide between attending virtual or in-person classes before the requirement was announced.

And even with a universal mask mandate, Mica and Emory are nervous for the year to come.

‘Doing the right thing’

On May 13, 1998 — just three months shy of his tenth birthday — Kenneth Matthews, Jr., died of cancer.

His sister, Kenyona Sunny Matthews, grew older without him. She graduated high school and moved on to college. She built a life and a career. She had children of her own.

Matthews’s oldest, Kaylan Park, knows her late uncle from pictures and stories — his wide smile and bright eyes the draw of every family photo. 

When Matthews’s brother became ill, she and her family wore masks to help protect him from infections. Kenny wore a face covering, too, as did the doctors and nurses who cared for him.

When Matthews found out she was pregnant with her second child in February 2020, she knew she’d name the baby Kenneth, in honor of his uncle and grandfathers. One month later, Kaylan was sent home from school to finish third grade virtually. 

Now a fifth grader in the Cuyahoga Falls City School District, Kaylan spent the entire duration of her fourth grade school year learning online.

Kaylan says she supports mask mandates in schools because they help protect people like her late late uncle, who rely on the cooperation of others to stay healthy.

“I made it a big deal that she was sacrificing a part of her youth, her childhood, her fourth grade year, for the greater good,” Matthews says. “I’m so proud of her.”

“A lot of times, she would reference that I was pregnant,” Matthews adds. “When the baby came, she’d say she was doing the right thing for her brother. She has asthma, so she’s doing the right thing for her. I have autoimmune diseases, so she’s doing the right thing for me.”

For Kaylan, who is still too young to be vaccinated, the decision to wear a mask is a simple one. Overall, she says she’s disappointed by adults’ reluctance to follow CDC masking guidelines.

“It’s just like, you’d think that adults would be smarter if a virus came.” she says. “Then you realize that some of them won’t even do anything.”

‘Children are dying’

Dr. Michael Forbes doesn’t like what he sees.

“Children were kind of spared last year,” says Forbes, a pediatric critical care specialist at Akron Children’s Hospital. “This year, Delta has converted the COVID-19 pandemic into a childhood illness.”

A father of two himself, Forbes has more than 30 years of experience in the field of pediatrics. He says the Delta variant is far more contagious than the Alpha variant and is landing more and more young people in Akron Children’s Hospital with serious, life-threatening symptoms.

On Sept. 21, the Akron Beacon Journal reported that more than 1 in 4 patients in Akron Children’s pediatric intensive care unit were being treated for COVID-19.

“We are seeing incredible numbers,” Forbes says. “But more than that, what it’s done to the system — our primary care network is full. Our urgent care is full and seeing record numbers. Our emergency department is seeing record daily numbers.”

At the start of the academic year, Forbes was hesitant to suggest a mask mandate. Now, he’s changed his mind: “We’ve given people nineteen months’ worth of information, and they are making bad choices and dying because of it. Furthermore, now children are dying because adults have made bad decisions.”

“That bothers me a whole lot,” Forbes adds. “Because this is a preventable catastrophe.”

Masks save lives’

On Sept. 1, Matthews petitioned the Cuyahoga Falls Board of Education to approve a mask requirement in all public schools.

“I contacted all 3,000 people that I know in Cuyahoga Falls. I had all the parents that I knew were [in favor of the mask mandate] write letters,” she says. “We had a bunch of people who were sitting in the audience wearing masks that said ‘Masks save lives.’”

Matthews’s bid was successful, but not without controversy.

Three weeks after the board voted in favor of a mask mandate, anti-mask demonstrators shut down a school board meeting after they risked public safety by refusing to wear masks indoors.

For now, Kaylan and Matthews are relieved, but they still anxiously await the approval of a safe, effective vaccine option for kids ages 5-11. 

In the meantime, the pair is committed to making the best of it — whatever the best may be. Over the last year, Kaylan has hosted virtual tea parties, drive-by birthdays and Zoom sleepovers. 

“When I got vaccinated, for the first dose, I wore a crown and princess shirt,” Matthews adds. “I had my daughter take my picture. When she gets hers, we’re doing the same thing. I’m going to get the biggest prom dress I can find, because it’s empowering to me to know that we can do something to end this.”

‘We are very intimately connected’

For Emory and Mica, things still feel uncertain.

Before they were vaccinated, Mica lived in constant fear: “Everywhere you went, it was terrifying to know that I could get sick at any moment, and it could be [COVID-19], or it just could be nothing.”

“I just didn’t go anywhere for a year. Now, I don’t really have friends. You can keep in contact online but it’s not the same. It feels like I don’t have social skills anymore,” Mica says — echoing a common experience among kids, teens and young adults across the country.

Because Mica is also deaf, the return to in-person learning has presented them with another hurdle: communication. While Mica relies on the mask requirement to stay safe and healthy, face coverings also prevent them from reading lips.

So far, Mica says classroom communication is going well and that they’ve relied primarily on signing and hearing aids to take notes, ask questions and do group work.

But even after receiving a third booster shot of the Pfizer vaccine at the beginning of the school year, Mica worries they may contract the virus as cases rise and rowdy students grow more and more restless.

Students like Mica and Kaylan share a unique understanding of how their actions affect others — a concept Dr. Forbes recommends parents and families embrace as an opportunity to learn, grow and cultivate empathy.

“The fact is, we are very intimately interconnected,” Forbes says, “and our choices do affect other people. With that in mind, we have to make science-based choices, and we need to walk through this life together.”

“Although it feels that way and looks that way, this is not the end of the world,” Forbes adds. “It’s a very, very, very difficult era. And the way we’re going to make it out of this era is the way people have [always] survived horrible eras: They do it together.”

Akron Public Schools offers free vaccination clinics via their Roll Up a Sleeve program at 17 APS locations through October 27. Registered nurses are present on site and vaccinations take place during normal school hours. Click here for more information.

H.L. Comeriato covers public health at The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach them at HL@thedevilstrip.com.

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