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‘A Year Full of Emotions.’ What Kids Learned From the COVID-19 Pandemic

17 minute read

Too many young generations have been shaped by the global crises they faced—Depression-era poverty, Cold War nuclear fears. Add to them the COVID generation. The virus itself may typically go easier on kids than it does adults, but the mind of a child is another thing. It’s dependent on certainty, safety, the comfort of routine. Take all of that away—shutter schools, keep grandparents at a distance, cancel summer camps—and kids suffer. But as the following lightly-edited stories from young people show, they also grow and learn, gain maturity and wisdom. The virus has been tough; plenty of kids, it turns out, have been tougher.

Jeremy Liew, 13, Riverside, Conn.

Michelle Toy Liew

The last year made me comfortable with being uncomfortable.

I was uncomfortable being singled out for how I look (I am an Asian-American Pacific Islander). A year ago, people looked at me with suspicions as if I had COVID-19 or brought it to my community. I felt embarrassed to be me. I usually use jokes or magic tricks in awkward moments, but people didn’t want to be around me. That made me empathetic to how others feel based on how they look.

Learning without the social cues of a classroom was difficult. At in-person school, I took notes when I could see that everyone around me did. During Zoom, I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. That made me take risks like asking my English teacher for help or raising my hand first to share my thinking. I learned change happens, pandemic or not. People adapt and become stronger even with uncertainty. I can deal with it too.

I am still uncomfortable. But now I am confident. I appreciate who I am. I am grateful for what I have (my education, health, and three annoying sisters). And I believe that people and science can make a difference, maybe with the help of a little magic!

Roman Peterson, 14, New York, N.Y.

Courtesy Mary Pflum

The last year has been the year of getting to know COVID too well. Some people think kids don’t get COVID, or that, if they do, it’s no big deal. In our house, it was a big deal.

When our school announced it was going to remote learning in March 2020, I thought the pandemic might feel like vacation. But then my mom got COVID. She was really sick. We quarantined in our New York City apartment. My younger brothers and sister and I tried to stay away from her. But a few days after she was diagnosed, I got a fever. Doctors told me I had COVID, too. My fever lasted four weeks. I lost my appetite and got really bad headaches.

Researchers at New York Presbyterian/Columbia asked me to be in a year-long study. In the early stages, the study was one of the only ways I could get in-person care. The researchers saw me as many as four times a month. They took my blood and spit and even studied my braces to figure out how long COVID stays on kids’ teeth. I still get “COVID headaches.” But I know I’m lucky. COVID taught me not to take my health or the opportunity to be with people, in person, for granted.

I now have headaches less often. And our eighth grade graduation will be in-person. It will be the first time we’ll be together as a full grade since COVID began.

Mira McInnes, 12, Leawood, Kan.

Stephanie McInnes

I struggle with anxiety and depression, and although I was in a good place mentally when the first wave of COVID-19 cases hit in the U.S., the pandemic created a greater challenge for me.

Up until March 2020, I was seeing my psychologist in person. COVID changed that almost overnight. Although it was weird at first talking to her through a computer screen, I quickly became used to it. I’ve been able to get the help I need, and I’m grateful for how much she has done for me. In between appointments, though, I needed to find a way to take my mind off things. So, I turned to writing.

Over the past year, I’ve spent several hours most days writing short stories, poems, and songs about how I’m feeling and what my hopes for the future are. Staying unfiltered on paper or on screen has helped me validate my struggles with mental health and allows me to be open and honest with myself in a way I haven’t truly been before.

Nirav Pandey, 15, Kathmandu, Nepal

Umesh Pandey

2020 was a year too unpleasant to remember, yet too hard to forget. I was expecting something totally normal. Nothing dangerous, nothing out of the blue. Just another ordinary year. However, 2020 was just another pandora’s box, waiting to be opened. The pandemic began taking a toll and I was already disheartened, knowing that things wouldn’t be the same for a very long time. Nothing could go worse, I assumed. I was dead wrong.

In December, I felt terribly sick. On the day I reached the hospital, I was grey with fatigue. I stayed for observation and a few check-ups. The results were distressing. In the matter of a few hours, my liver, heart and lungs were struggling to keep up. I was shifted to the ICU. Before I was put into the ventilator, I told my parents that I’ll be back soon, uncertain if I would ever see them again. Over the next four days, my health deteriorated significantly and there was little hope of my survival. In the nick of time, with the right treatment, I made it back to life, after what seemed an eternity. I greatly respect all front line workers.

I was diagnosed with Pediatric Inflammatory Multisystem Syndrome, a rare and dangerous disease discovered in April 2020 associated with COVID-19. The odds of me getting the disease were less than 0.5%. Through this struggle, I have come to realize how precious life is and the hurdles we need to overcome at every step.

Isaiah Magala Destin, 10, Charlotte, N.C.

Yven Destin

The COVID pandemic has made me feel a lot of ways—good, sad, weird, but mostly sad. I haven’t seen my old friends in person. I can only FaceTime them on my mini tablet. My best friend Leland finally came to visit me a few weeks ago, which was great. But he was the only one who did all year.

Things seem to be getting better with the pandemic. I know President Joe Biden is doing his best to end COVID. At my school, I heard all the teachers got vaccinated! And at school, sometimes you can take your mask off for like 20 minutes while exercising during P.E., which I like.

At home, I spend a lot of time playing with my cute twin siblings in and outside our apartment. I also draw a lot and make videos on my tablet, which makes my life better.

I feel sad that I don’t get to meet my family in Uganda and Florida. To tell you the truth, if COVID-19 wasn’t real, I would not be that careful about getting sick. I wish that COVID was so weak that it would become like getting chickenpox.

Shanaya Pokharna, 12, Memphis, Tenn.

Courtesy Payal Pokharna

I had never imagined that at age 12, I would be witness to something so unusual, something that would become history—a pandemic, something people only hear about in textbooks. Unimaginable, unfathomable, unforgettable is how I describe 2020.

This was a year full of emotions. My mother was sick in an isolated room for 20 days. She got COVID-19 when the world was waking up to “just another flu” in early March. My father, who is an infectious disease physician, tirelessly cared for COVID patients in inundated hospitals, navigating the lack of supplies and finally contracting the infection himself.

2020 has matured me by a few years. I learned the virtues of compassion, patience, hard work, selflessness, dedication, gratefulness and passion towards one’s profession and family from my parents and people around me. There are so many things we take for granted—like family and friends—but 2020 has made me realize how important these things are. This whole experience has made me realize that we humans are capable of overcoming any adversities as we all strive to get over this catastrophe.

Abby Rogers, 11, Lahaina, Hawaii

Stan Brody

I can’t believe all that has changed in one year. Like most kids, my school was shut down. Every day the news would report about the virus spreading quickly throughout the world, and it was scary for me because I have reactive airways disease. Due to my condition, my exposure to people outside of my family was limited. While my world became physically smaller, my online world began expanding. To give me something to do, my aunt recommended scientific livestreams, where I could learn from scientists from all over the world. Now, my new “best friends” are explorers who educate me on the importance of climate change, kelp forests, cotton-top tamarins and so much more!

The more I’ve learned, the more I’ve wanted to do something to help make the world a better place. I started by trying to become as eco-friendly as possible. I cut down on my single use plastics, ate less meat, and became an avid recycler. I have recently gone back to school two days a week and I’m super excited to be there. However, I was a little concerned as to why there wasn’t a recycling bin in my classroom, but my teacher kindly allowed me to bring one in!

Valentina Efendiev, 6, Jackson, N.J.

Courtesy Karen Henriquez

I got a purple skateboard. I also like to roller skate, ride scooters, and ride my bike on my driveway and in the park. I also like to paint and color. I am starting to paint a mermaid canvas and it has so many details. I drew a paw print and a flamingo in my art class. My class was on the computer. Now it’s in my classroom, but hopefully soon it can be in the art room.

In the winter I made a big snowman, and we had a big snowball fight. I hit Daddy in the glasses! He was O.K. And I did a chat with my friends and showed them my loose tooth, and they said it was really cool.

I used to ride horses but they shut down. My horseback teacher’s mom got sick, so we were meant to be away. I was sad because I couldn’t do gymnastics, swimming, or horseback riding anymore. Now I don’t know how to swim. I want to learn how to do a cartwheel.

As told to TIME via interview

Afton Campbell, 12, Surprise, Ariz.

Courtesy Alicia Campbell

I haven’t had COVID-19, but the pandemic still changed my life. Distance learning started in March 2020. Since then, I haven’t gone back to in-person school; I chose to continue online classes because I enjoy spending more time with my mom and baby sister. I’ve missed my teachers and friends, but I can wear pajamas!

My dad works at a cancer hospital. As other hospitals were busy treating COVID-19 patients, they transferred cancer patients to his hospital. I saw him less as he worked overtime.

Before the pandemic, my family visited my aunt in a memory care facility every week. I loved spending time with her and the other residents. Her facility has banned visitors since March 2020. We FaceTimed, but it wasn’t the same. Then she caught COVID-19. Watching her decline was horrible. She passed on New Year’s Eve, and our family had to hold her funeral virtually. When we needed our family most we couldn’t be together.

The pandemic changed my life, but not in entirely bad ways. I’m grateful to realize all the things I took for granted, like how lucky I am to be healthy and to spend time with my family.

Milo Ecker, 5, Randolph, N.J.

Tracey Goldberg

I like to have fun at home. My daddy makes movies for work, and we made a movie together. It’s called Puzzled. It’s about me doing a puzzle, but I’m missing a piece. And my little brother Elliot finds the piece! It’s a really good movie.

Sometimes I do grown-up workouts with my mommy and daddy, so I’m super strong. I like when my daddy makes hot dogs on the grill outside for dinner.

I didn’t go to school for a long time because there was a virus. Now I go to school. I learn science with my friends. I was in a play. I wore a costume and a mask. We wear masks whenever we’re at school. I bring a lot of masks in my backpack because I don’t like when my mask gets wet from spit.

As told to TIME via interview

Sammy P. Smith, 5, Urbana, Ill.

Courtesy PJ Holder

This past year has been very different for me. Daddy never went on any work trips. I homeschooled all year long. I only got to go into two stores. I read hundreds of books from the library. I went to lots of empty playgrounds. I went on lots of hikes in the woods. I’ve spent all year playing with my little brother. I got to go to a drive-through zoo and see a real camel! I barely got to play with any other kids outside of my family. I am looking forward to getting my vaccine so I can make new friends and go to stores with Mommy and Daddy.

Maria Elena Suarez, 13, Bellaire, Texas

Courtesy Charlotte Aguilar

Becoming an official teenager in the middle of a pandemic was especially hard. I couldn’t tell how much of the angst, isolation, and moodiness I was feeling was because of adolescence and how much was due to very real fears for everyone I love, lockdowns and quarantines, and bad news from around the world.

How could I feel sorry for myself when the entire world was experiencing what I was? Every day there were new challenges. First, school was cancelled, then it was “virtual.” No sixth-grade graduation, no goodbyes to my teachers or gift-giving, no signing our yearbooks. No vacation trips. No socializing with my friends. At all. Just faces on my iPad screen.

There was so much to be grateful for, though. The time I got to spend with my family especially. How creative we were about birthdays and holidays—most of them socially distanced and masked in parks. I learned to sew masks. I made them for my family and myself and donated many to the seniors’ program in my city. That got me outside my own skin, helping someone else.

Two days after the government approved the vaccine for my age group, I rolled up my sleeve and got my first shot. It’s surreal that I’ve lived world history that I can tell my children and grandchildren about.

Victoria Hanson, 11, Chadds Ford, Penn.

Courtesy Sophia Hanson

My last year has been full of yummy new treats. While at home during the pandemic, I developed a tasty new hobby—baking. It all started with a major project to bake a six-layer rainbow cake. The rainbow cake looked amazing! There unfortunately were “technical difficulties” with the purple, so it was just five layers.

After that, I continued baking cakes because I had a lot of fun. As I got better at baking I made bigger cakes. I taught myself to use a piping bag to decorate my cakes with flowers. I also learned how to make fondant for specialty designs such as animal shapes. The two most important lessons for bakers are to follow the directions in the recipe and to clean up their workspace. This last year has earned me a fancy new title. My new name is “Cake Boss.”

Rory Hu, 11, Cupertino, Calif.

Courtesy Yanlin Wu

Blame the Avengers. They took the Infinity Stones, altered the flow of time, and turned the world upside down. Seriously, 2020 felt so strange that it was as if we had entered a parallel timeline. Everything around me has gone virtual since: virtual school, virtual playdates, and even virtual birthday parties!

This “virtual” world made me feel anxious, lonely, and bored at first. Then it hit me that this past year my family has had a chance to spend more time together than ever before. Same with my friends. For example, I had no idea about one of my friend’s artistic skills until we began collaborating on a Zoom whiteboard. Although the real distance was very far, we got much closer virtually.

The world is as real as before, if not more so, despite all the virtual activity. The issues around me, such as the California wildfires and Asian hate crimes, are very real even though I learned about them online. The pandemic is not the only battle we are fighting. It’s time to get real and stand up for our future.

Pranav Mukhi, 11, South Setauket, New York

Sandeep Mukhi

When I began school remotely in March 2020, I was excited at first. I thought that besides school, most of my life would stay the same. However, I soon realized that school shutting down meant that the other things I enjoyed, such as my evening routine of swimming and karate practices, would also come to a standstill.

With my newfound time, I needed a new hobby. I used all my savings to buy a 3D printer. It was so exciting! I started to design things even before the printer was delivered. I started off making simple designs like a pencil box for my sister. My passion for 3D printing also allowed me to help out my community during the pandemic. I worked with the Good Karma Engineering initiative to create reusable masks with 3D-printed designs.

Carolina Caraballo, 11, Bronx, New York

Mario Caraballo

A year ago, I said goodbye to my life as I knew it and hello to the infamous year in quarantine—2020, the year I will never forget, a year full of changes I’m still getting used to.

As a student, I was asked to change how I learn. When quarantine began, I was midway through fifth grade. One day to the next, my bedroom, kitchen and dining table became my classroom and I had to learn how to learn on a screen. Online learning had its perks and was even exciting at first—can’t beat the comfort of being home. However, the seemingly endless Zooms, messy rooms and work spaces got old real quick. No amount of screen time could make up for in-person interactions with friends.

I am now in the sixth grade and have returned to in-person school two days a week. I’m grateful that I get to see teachers and friends face-to-face. I keep reminding myself that everything that 2020 has been will make for great lockdown stories to tell later and to look back on when we are older. I had a socially distanced eleventh birthday. I had endless family time. I learned how to make scrambled eggs and pancakes, banana bread and cake from scratch.

Twenty years from now, a kid just like me will be learning about what I went through, in a history class. And I think that’s pretty amazing!

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com