Written by Bella Chang.  Bella graduated Gunn High School in 2020 and plans to attend UC Berkeley in the fall.

     During this new life with the coronavirus, the one constant is change. We have changed the way we work, the way we clean, and the way we live. But, arguably one of the most important changes made during this worldwide pandemic is the way we socialize and interact with the people around us. 

     High schoolers across the globe are struggling to adapt themselves to this new form of socialization. Without the normal environment of their school campus, sports practices, and extracurricular activities, teens are finding it difficult to stay connected with their peers. Students with differing abilities already face challenges when it comes to communicating with their peers on campus. Whether it’s during lunch or brunch, students with disabilities often keep to themselves and don’t often interact with students on the main Quad, which can be a very crowded and overwhelming place. Now that social interactions have mainly shifted to online platforms, it can be even harder for students to stay in touch with each other, especially those who already face challenges with communicating and socialization. We wanted to explore the ways in which we could connect ALL teens. Without the physical interaction on school campuses, how can we promote inclusion virtually?

     Gunn High School in Palo Alto has thought of a few ideas to help keep their student body connected during this time, one of those being virtual spirit weeks. On social media and schoology platforms, the Gunn student activities counsel has broadcasted various online spirit weeks for the student body to participate in. The most recent online spirit week has included activities like Masterchef Monday, Talent Tuesday, and Friendship Friday where students can submit their various creations online and participate with the school. To incentivize students to participate, they even threw in a friendly competition between the grades! Some student run clubs and organizations have also created activities and online events. While these spirit weeks do help to bring students together online, they are not the most inclusive. To participate in the spirit weeks, students need to be connected to their class through social media, specifically Instagram and Facebook. Some students are not connected to these platforms and don’t have access to social media like Instagram or Tik Tok, making it hard for the students to truly get involved. Also, students who face challenges with social anxiety or sensory information may have a hard time participating in these online activities, making these efforts a failed attempt at bringing the entire community together. 

     However, teens have become creative when it comes to thinking of ways to stay connected with their peers. There are tons of online sites and games that students have been using to socialize with their friends. Websites like Netflix Party allow teens to sync up Netflix accounts and watch the same thing together while being able to chat on the side. Applications like Houseparty and FaceTime allow students to connect virtually with the aspect of physical connection. Online games like Skribbl.io allow students to play games together. Of course there is always social media where students can stay connected through their profiles and posts, but are these online resources enough to bring ALL students together? No. 

     Social cliques and exclusivity still prevail online, especially with these voluntary activities. Social media and internet games do not suit all students, and it’s hard for students outside of the social sphere to get involved. So what can we do? With summer vacation here, students can no longer rely on school sponsored online activities and events, and socialization falls entirely into the students’ hands. Without schools, students need online organizations to step up and create an accessible platform for students of all abilities to interact and socialize with each other. One specific organization called QuaranTEEN (found at https://www.qteen.net) has been working to help solve these problems. Started by students at Gunn High School, this organization does a great job at providing students with ways to connect with their peers. Their mission is “to provide a place where people from all over the world can bond together to share ideas, stories, hobbies, and find ways to support one another to survive and grow stronger through this tough period in our lives.” The website includes blog posts and forums for students to share their stories and ideas, resources for parents to help entertain their bored teenagers, information on different organizations and places to get involved through donation, and a very exciting Pen Pal program. The pen pal program connects teens all over the world to form pen pal relationships and correspondence through email. The QuaranTEEN website, and others like it, is a great way for students who aren’t connected on social media to interact with other teens. Whether it be just by reading a few blog posts about how to stay sane during this time, ideas for fun activities and projects, or writing a pen pal, students have an opportunity to stay connected without the social pressures and stress of social media. While QuaranTEEN is an example of a helpful organization, it is only one example, demonstrating the need for resources and other organizations like it. Without structured activities or other organizations, students with disabilities may have a very hard time getting involved in socialization during this quarantine period. 

     In these unprecedented times, students must learn how to come together in light of all the changes to social interactions. With social distancing orders still in effect, students must make the effort to promote inclusion virtually. Whether it be through social media, online games, or through organizations that help teens connect with each other, students of all abilities have the opportunity to interact with peers. However, it’s important that students keep in mind that inclusivity is not a given. We need the community to step up to the role and help to create a safer and more inclusive environment for students with differing abilities. While it should be given that all students are inclusive and accepting of one another, it is hard to enforce, especially without the physical aspect of socialization. Now that social interaction is mainly behind a screen, students can hide behind their devices and choose not to continue promoting a safe and inclusive environment. With this in mind, students need to go the extra mile to ensure that their peers feel included and connected with. There is still tons of work to be done, and without students’ input and effort, online interactions will stray further and further from being inclusive. 

 

Please visit here to read and hear a recap  of Magical Bridge Foundation’s Teen DEI Board Presentation.

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