Gen Z is growing up during a pandemic. They have a message for the rest of us

As the United States has grappled with a deadly pandemic of historic proportions, young people have been watching.

Many were old enough to understand its challenges — yet too young to be making key decisions themselves. But they felt Covid-19’s impacts nevertheless as the country weighed central debates: virtual learning or in-person? Masks or no masks? Vaccination mandates or not?

And with another school year underway, young people are once again at the center of much of the conversation. While health experts promote school mask policies and an increase in vaccination rates to protect students who gather in classrooms, some governors have pushed back.

Many young people told CNN they felt helpless while others worried about their mental health. “This pandemic has brought me self-reflection and analysis, but it also was a test on the world and this country, and I fear we are failing,” said Ella Stromberg, a 17-year-old from Vancouver, Washington.

Young Americans may not have autonomy over how they attend school, if their families get vaccinated or the policies elected officials implement, but they are observing the victories and pitfalls of those who do.

During the recent Covid-19 surge leading into the school year, CNN asked Americans 16 and over what they’ve taken away from the pandemic thus far. Here’s what they had to say.

What I lost

From academic success to social life, those who responded said the pandemic took away important parts of their youth.

Ella Stromberg — 17 years old, Washington state

The pandemic has caused me to see death all around me, with thousands of people dying everyday, and the realization that I cannot do anything about it besides following the safety guidelines…. I’ve experienced many nights of wishing I could do something more for those who were affected by this virus, and at the same time, becoming more and more mad at people who are not taking the virus seriously…. I have these thoughts everyday, obscuring me from fully focusing on myself and my education. That’s how the pandemic has affected me. Taking me away from what it’s truly like to be a teenager in high school. I’m angry, grieving, and just downright scared. As a teenager, I shouldn’t be worrying about what I can do for the collapsing world around me. I should be living a normal life. The pandemic has taken that chance away from me, and every teenager on this planet.

Sebastian Fraccari — 17 years old, New York state

School lost its time limits, it was more work and all the time, weekends, after hours, cuz we got the classwork as well as homework and had to complete all the work or we’d suffer consequences.

Julia Mauk — 22 years old, Delaware

The country quite literally shut down on my 21st birthday, two days later I was fired from both of my jobs (due to the university closing), had less than 72 hours to pack everything I own from my dorm that I was being kicked out of and drive 22 hours back to the east coast where I would spend the first half of the pandemic.

Ella’s pandemic scrapbook

We asked our respondents to send in some pictures that they felt best described their pandemic experience. Ella Stromberg, a high school student from Washington state, said the pandemic left her struggling to still be a teenager in the isolation and divide.

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Stromberg joined her school’s cross country team for the first time once in-person sports began — she says she was eager to participate, no matter what sport it was.
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She signed up for her school’s leadership camp, which was eventually moved online. Since she’s a senior, she will never be able to experience the camp in person.
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She carved pumpkins over Zoom.
Courtesy of Ella Stromberg

Julia Mikaelian — 16 years old, North Carolina

I live in the south and i don’t want to be afraid to go to school because some people don’t get the vaccine. also, school really sucked. Literally all I did was spend hours on the computer for school every day. I would be up till 11pm doing homework and then was expected to be up at 7am to do it all over again.

Margaret Bland Katy — 16 years old, Texas

I was 15 during most of the pandemic and had to experience the entirety of my sophomore year of high school alone in my room. Some days I would hardly leave. During February, both of my parents and my brother got Covid. I was the only one in the house that didn’t have it. I locked my self in my room, I ate alone and wore a mask almost 24 hours a day. I surprisingly didn’t get it, but it was the hardest two weeks of the pandemic. I’m now 16 and have to go back to campus for my junior year. I’ve become detached from people but I have to jump back in like normal and keep moving forward.

What the adult world lacked

As they saw their world fall apart, what many didn’t see was support, compassion, unity and understanding from the adults around them.

Jackson Neofes — 18 years old, Pennsylvania

I believe that all of the decisions made from the top, while at times necessary, usually contributed to increased stress and anxiety among students. I know that many U.S. students, myself included, will have to spend a few academic years recovering from the whirlwind of the past two school years.

Sebastian

With all this online I slowly started to hate everything as it had all gone to a disaster and had become constantly overwhelming. I also became significantly more annoyed at everyone for everything as nothing worked properly in the city. Everyone was fighting to create something that worked but it was constant confusion and never any consistency jus constant neglect and lack of order.

Sebastian’s pandemic scrapbook

Sebastian, 17, went through the pandemic in New York state — one of the places that was hardest hit early on.

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Fraccari snapped a selfie while riding the subway in New York.
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He enjoyed some time with friends outside in July of last year, when cases were declining slightly.
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Nearly a year later, as the Delta variant dominated the news, he kept his mask on during an outing with friends this August.
Courtesy of Sebastian Fraccari

Julia Mauk

The biggest similarity between the response to covid in Delaware and Oklahoma is the lack of empathy and inability to keep politics out of it. Due to this mistake not only are people dying needlessly but as young people we are spending our most formative years trying to decode every message we get from the"adult world" every major leader tells us a different move to make, a different action to take. We’re so caught up in trying to keep up that we don’t have the mental capacity to take care of ourselves, our classes, our social lives. Therefore this has lead to us not caring at all, going to bars and parties, living life as if it’s normal again, because we can’t keep listening to the nonsense the "adult world" is spewing at us.

Julia Mauk

I’d like to give credit to everyone at the start, nobody knew what to do or how to handle things, there were no right or wrong answers and no time to think ahead. But after a few months, our leaders, our mentors, our parents, our older family members, let us down. They allowed the virus to become a political tactic, on the left and right. Democrats will accuse conservatives of politicizing the virus and vaccine, as if the left didn’t use it as a political weapon as well… Our adults and leaders were unwilling to find a common ground, unable to compromise, and our education suffered, not because of covid but because of incompetence and lack of innovation. Allowing this pandemic to become political warfare has so heavily damaged rural communities.

Justina Michaels — 16 years old, New York

The computer spoke. “Justina, what do you think?” I froze. Online school has been a test of my self-discipline. When one missing assignment turned into five, my will to do them vanished. It was hopeless. Without having to turn in assignments in person, the pressure to complete them disappeared and soon I had dug myself so deep into a hole of essays and worksheets that there was no hope of finding a way out. The classes that I used to look forward to with anticipation now felt like a chore. The rush I used to feel when writing about the effects of the Great Depression had disappeared, and the questions I used to shoot my hand up to answer were now met with silence. I turned to Youtube and Netflix to distract me from all the missing work, and the temptation to scroll mindlessly through my phone while my math teacher explained functions grew stronger every day. Never before had I felt so disappointed in myself, wasting the potential I knew I had.

Justina’s pandemic scrapbook

In New York state, Justina Michaels said the world moving online took a toll on her schooling and her self-esteem.

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Michaels visited the grocery store with a friend after school.
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She and a friend took a masked-up selfie in the school bathroom.
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She waited for the results of an exam.
Courtesy of Justina Michaels

What we need

Patience, an open ear and common ground — young Americans had some suggestions for how to make the country better.

Jackson

Overall, I feel as though the "adult world" (at least in my local community) did their best in navigating an unprecedented situation while keeping everyone safe. Political snags were smoothed, and the spread of COVID-19 among the student body was limited. On the other hand, it felt as though students were meant to bear the brunt of every last-minute decision made by the "adult world". This, in my eyes, is where things could have been handled better.

Jackson’s pandemic scrapbook

In Pennsylvania, 18-year-old Jackson said he felt the brunt of the pandemic but also saw the country coming together to look for solutions.

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Neofes climbed to the top of a mountain in Vermont this August, marking the first vacation he had been able to take since the start of the pandemic.
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He visited the White House this April, after heading to D.C. for a college visit.
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He turned 18 this January, and snapped a picture outside his polling place after casting his first ballot during a May 2021 municipal primary in Pennsylvania.
Courtesy of Jackson Neofes

Ella Stromberg

I lost many friends and family over the "political" aspects of this virus, and those aspects shouldn’t exist by the way…. This pandemic has brought me self reflection and analysis, but it also was a test on the world and this country, and I fear we are failing.

What I gained

But even in the hardest of circumstances, they found new strengths and hope for the future.

Ella

This pandemic has brought me self reflection and analysis.

Jacob Garcia — 17 years old, California

I think if we did online school again, like some people are predicting in the near future, the outcomes will be better because we have done this before and a second attempt will be more successful than last year. We have seen a glimmer of hope and felt so close to the end of this pandemic so I feel more willing to make sacrifices to let this be over.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to remove a quote that was incorrectly attributed.