Recent school closures have become one of the biggest disruptions to the lives of school children and parents.
For many teens, the ongoing disruption of this school year is tinged with great disappointment, as social distancing has put a damper on important rites of passage such as prom and graduation.
However, Teen Council teens continue to meet virtually, participating in the program that will extend into the summer. Regularly meeting online, engaging in group chats, and participating in distance learning opportunities, Teen Council groups are growing peer education skills through virtual trainings.
All 37 Teen Council programs across the country have moved online. Facilitators are adapting and changing dynamically to serve Teen Council members in new and creative ways. Both staff and youth are showing resiliency, keeping the program going during uncertain times.
“It’s tough because the Teen Council programs are intrinsically tied to the school districts,” explained Nadya Schober, a Capacity Building Manager who works with the program out of Olympia, Washington. “The program follows the school calendar. Programming usually has a lull in the summer and starts again in the fall.”
Teen Council trains teens to become sex educators by the time the school year is through, the most foundational topics are covered at the beginning of the year, and teens tended to explore topics of special interest to them by the school year’s end. But that didn’t happen this year, and many of the “extra” lessons are queued to still take place.
“Youth have experienced a lot of loss – loss of structure, loss of expectations. Teen Council is a place where they still have the ability to connect with each other and with other teams. They have a place where they can be themselves. They’re asking for that to go into the summer,” said Sarah Sutherland, a Seattle, Washington Education Manager.
While Teen Council facilitators must step it up to implement extended programming, they must also turn an eye to recruitment for the future of the program.
“Youth are more isolated now, so we have to shift the way we look at recruitment to be more social media based,” said Shober. She said that many Teen Council members are helping with that by creating their own social media content and sharing it with friends.
She noted that the Teen Council pivot to going all-virtual has its pros as well as its cons.
“Some of the things I’ve noticed is that transportation is no longer as great a barrier. We have weekly meetings and high expectations for attendance. Not having to arrange transportation has been a relief for some members, and attendance numbers have been great on the virtual meetings,” Schober said.
Schober did acknowledge that access to technology can now be a barrier to teens, and that many teens use their phones to participate instead of a computer: “The question of the day is how can we adjust our platforms to include the most people?”
Sutherland explained that moving to virtual-only meetings in a short amount of time has created several unforeseen challenges. For example, Sutherland cited balancing the need of teens to have a low-bandwidth platform for video conferences, while maintaining the online privacy and security necessary to keep teens and facilitators safe. “More secure platforms tend to use up more bandwidth, which does not work for a lot of people.”
She added, “We have been nimble and flexible in the face of an unprecedented global crisis that no one saw coming, so no one had a road map.”
During the spring, Teen Councils are typically busy providing sex education in classrooms. With schools closed, many Teen Councils have shifted their peer education online, including to social media. The Teen Council of South King County, Washington state, has been excited about highlighting that Planned Parenthood health centers are still open and serving the community, as well as uplifting the news that their state recently passed into law a bill requiring comprehensive sex education. In lieu of being able to co-create presentations together in person, Teen Council members are creating social media content to post online, producing educational videos on sex ed topics. Check out their stories and posts here, and consider finding your local Teen Council program on Instagram to see what Teen Council is educating about virtually.
Across the country schools, businesses, and programs have closed in response to COVID-19. However, Teen Council facilitators have risen to the incredible challenge of bringing a program designed to be facilitated in-person to a virtual space. In a time when so many programs are closing and connections are ending, providing this space for teens to be connected to each other and their community is crucial and needed.