Student Voices: Young people need a voice at the table – COVID-19 from a teen’s perspective

It’s been over eight months since my classmates and I left school in March. After the initial months of panic, many Americans have convinced themselves that things have settled down. We’ve tried not to let COVID-19 consume our lives and, concerningly, christened it the “new normal.” As a junior in high school, I, along with many of my peers, am increasingly wary of how adults in power are handling the crisis.

Even as the number of cases keeps growing, cities across the country have continued to oscillate between loosening and tightening restrictions. As the country breaks daily records for confirmed COVID cases since the start of the pandemic, life is straining to restart as though we’ve defeated the virus.

Locally, Santa Clara County is in the most severe level of California’s four-tier reopening system. The Los Altos School District has begun reopening schools. Students in third grade and below are back on campus. The Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District is still learning remotely, with only small cohorts of students back on campus.

Vital decisions are being made for teens regarding nearly every aspect of their lives. Yet little of the daily barrage of new information is directed toward young people. Our lives have been equally disrupted by the virus. We need to be part of the conversation.

Our perspectives are valuable in exploring issues pertaining to youth and the public. While young people are at a lower risk for severe COVID-19, risk factors such as smoking and obesity drastically increase young people’s vulnerability to severe disease. Research on these factors, especially prevalent in the U.S., has remained limited.

One study by the Journal of Adolescent Health, using data from the National Health Interview Survey, indicated that “nearly one in three young adults is medically vulnerable to severe COVID-19 illness (32%)” because of conditions and health behaviors such as smoking (cigarettes and e-cigarettes), asthma, heart conditions, immune conditions, diabetes, liver conditions and obesity.

In comparison, “in the nonsmoking young adult (sub)group, only approximately one in six is medically vulnerable to severe COVID-19 illness (16%).” Considering that according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 20% of high school students have used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days and roughly 20% of teenagers are obese, it’s vital that teens are heard in efforts to curb e-cigarette use, reduce the prevalence of obesity and educate youth on this information and more.

Privacy issues

On the conversation of COVID-19 contact tracing, young people can bring newer perspectives on privacy issues. As digital natives, we do things like sharing our location on social media platforms and accepting the use of data collecting “cookies.” In early September, Apple and Google rolled out COVID-19 contact tracing Bluetooth technology – “Exposure Notifications.”

The seemingly good news raises the questions: How will public health officials use this resource? What will happen to the collected data? Considering the app is opt-in, how will they reach enough of the population for it to be useful?

Assuming our civil liberties are protected, I know the majority of young people, including myself, would opt-in, and encourage others to as well. However, an opt-in program is still less effective. It requires initiative that should not be expected of everyone. Instead, an opt-out program would allow the technology to be more useful. I ask: At the end of the day, is your location history worth more than another’s life?

As more than 20% of the U.S. population, per a Brookings Institution analysis, Generation Z (anyone born from 1997 to 2012) is vastly underrepresented in decision-making affecting their own lives. In recent months, this generation has demonstrated that it is responsible and capable through organizing climate and racial injustice protests.

As discussions on how to reopen schools take place, some students, including those seeking athletic scholarships to support their college educations and those who rely on school as a social safety net, such as students receiving free lunches, risk being left out of the conversation. In these conversations, teens and young adults deserve a seat at the table, especially at the city and state level.

So rather than focusing on what we cannot do, pull out a chair at the table and invite us into the conversation. We might just surprise you with how fast we can learn, what we will say and what we can do.

Jeannette Wang is a junior at Los Altos High School.

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