Lessons from the pandemic

COVID. It was about three years ago that this word first entered my lexicon. Soon to follow were such words and terms as super-spreader, PPE, mask mandate, vax card, and social distancing. During this time, information was changing fast, hospitalization rates were rising, people were dying, and the world would soon effectively shut down. What many of us thought would be a two-week break turned into months, with the effects of this pandemic continuing today.

The initial concerns about COVID were physical in nature. Reports of a highly transmissible virus demonstrating lethal effects and putting a strain on the healthcare system across the globe were constant. Healthcare leaders, scientists, and government officials focused on the primary concern: physical health. In short order, vaccines were distributed, death rates declined, and the world began to open back up. The physical threat of COVID has been effectively managed, and the world is returning to normal. The question now becomes, what is normal?

Three years ago, it would be rare for people to only come into the office one or two days a week or video call someone instead of meeting them in person. Things have changed. No place has it changed more than with young people, and it is certainly not all good. The term "social distancing" was originally thought of as staying six feet away, but in reality, it created a social chasm for many. Feelings of loneliness and sadness increased significantly during this period for young people, and it has been slow to recover.

However, according to a March 2022 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "Youth who felt connected to adults and peers at school were significantly less likely than those who did not to report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness." Attending school is not just about learning material; it is about developing as a person and feeling part of a community. The shutdown of in-person learning in most public schools in the United States reduced schooling to the conveyance of information, and the negative effects on students and families of this approach are quantifiable.

In evaluating the challenges brought on by the pandemic, Kathleen A. Ethier, Ph.D., director of the CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health, noted, "School connectedness is a key to addressing youth adversities at all times -- especially during times of severe disruptions, students need our support now more than ever." This information is not news to those involved in Catholic education. Care for each student, knowing them, loving them, and helping them find their calling in life is why Catholic schools exist.

During the pandemic, 92 percent of Catholic schools nationwide were open for live, in-person learning. Teachers showed up each day, listening to and caring for these students while also providing them a first-rate academic experience. Education must be both about academic success and personal development. Students must feel a sense of connection and worth to achieve their full potential.

Next week, teachers and students will return to school after the winter vacation week. Let us pray that they are all rested and ready to re-engage academically, socially, and spiritually. Catholic educators change the lives of young people, and we, too, must also make the effort to reach out to young people. We must proactively work to engage with them and help bridge the social and emotional chasm created by COVID. Together we can change lives.

- Michael B. Reardon is executive director of the Catholic Schools Foundation, www.CSFBoston.org.