By Natalie Swampillai:
"Waiting in anticipation, I stand behind the curtain. In a few moments, I will be thrown on stage to perform a classical dance routine. I walk through the dance in my mind until I hear the announcer call my name. The curtains open, the music plays, and I begin to dance. But the blinding lights and unwavering gazes of the audience cause me to lose focus. I am no longer dancing to the beat, but instead against it. Suddenly, this all fades away, and I wake up only to remember that I have not performed for a year and a half, since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. We Americans have endured and continue to endure months of endless struggle with the pandemic. We have been thrown off our beat. In history class, I am always taught about the hardships and turmoil that my American predecessors have faced. It seems surreal that 18th century Americans endured the perils of smallpox, farmers and workers remained steadfast among changing economic conditions, and our modern heroes, our veterans, braved the challenges of wars in disparate parts of the world. The life-altering historical events of Pearl Harbor and 9/11, while tragic, created a sense of resiliency, strength, and unity among American generations. Despite knowing about these historical challenges, if someone had told me two years ago that we would be trapped in a pandemic, I would not have believed them. Covid-19 has become one of the most pressing issues facing my generation, and we are now tasked with what happens next–with where we go from here. In the throes of a pandemic, as well as other crises threatening the health of our nation, we must actively work to protect the next generation of Americans: our children. By protecting our children, we will protect America’s future. As a child, I adored swinging with friends in the school playground and eagerly raising my hand in class when I knew the answer to a teacher’s question. The American school system instills a love for education at a young age. It thrives on hands-on learning and social interactions between classmates. So how were America’s children affected when schools shut down? Students starting kindergarten never got the chance to meet their teachers or make new friends in person; those transitioning to middle school graduated without a ceremony. And many students lost their love for learning. While schools have now started back up, the BBC reports that studies on short-term school closings have left lasting impacts on children. Dave Marcotte, a professor of public affairs at American University, found that 5-day school closings due to snow can result in a 3% drop in an overall class’ pass rate, so picture the effects of a school closing for 5 months. Not only has the pandemic disrupted students’ ability to learn, but it has also undermined their mental and emotional health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that mental-health related visits for children have increased for 5-11 year olds by 24% during the pandemic. Moving forward, we should not neglect the social anxiety and mental health issues that arise from spending months in isolation. As more and more children return to in-person learning, we should actively support them and celebrate even the small victories. We should listen to what students have to say on how we can best enhance their education, and implement changes based on what they suggest. Another enormous threat to the well-being of our children, the very future of America, is environmental degradation. In recent years, states throughout the U.S. have faced alarming amounts of pollution and catastrophic events such as floods. In the face of these issues, children have stepped up, embracing their power as American citizens to make positive change. When in April of 2014, Flint, Michigan, experienced high amounts of lead and bacteria in their water supplies, Mari Copeny, at age 8, brought national attention to the issue through a $100 million cleanup campaign. When in August of 2016, a flash flood in Rayne, Louisiana resulted in 13 deaths and several damaged houses, Jayden Foytlin, at age 14, recruited members of her community to help her repair houses. With environmental crises growing in frequency and severity, we must take a more preventative approach in protecting our environment. We must continue to educate children on the science behind the ever-growing threat of environmental degradation; and we must continue to empower young activists who take matters into their own hands. As I recalled my dream, I closed my eyes and took in a deep breath to calm my nerves. I listened to the rhythm and began to dance, just as I had practiced beforehand. The music and I were finally in sync as my dance flowed with the beat. If we give children their due then America can also, once again, dance with the beat. Proactively protecting the health and well-being of our children is the way to go from here."