Are the kids all right? How Quebec teens are coping with being stuck at home

With school and social meetups out of the picture, adolescents in the province are having to grapple with a loss of structure, only parents and siblings for company and an uncertain future. Oh, and boredom.

With only siblings and parents for company, teens have lost what used to define their lives

As gatherings have been banned and schools closed, young people in Montreal are having to find new ways to occupy their time. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC)

There are the Netflix "parties," the video chats, the group chats, the phone calls. But ask a Quebec teen how they're doing right now, and chances are the answer is: "I'm bored."

As a demographic, adolescents have been identified as a serious potential vector for the spread of the novel coronavirus. They face fewer risks of getting a serious case of COVID-19 than the elderly and people with underlying health issues, so the potential for them to transmit the virus without knowing is high. 

Concerned about the role children and teens might play in spreading the virus, earlier this week the provincial government closed all schools until at least May 1.

Most accept it's a necessary step in the fight against COVID-19. But a whole subset of the population is now reckoning with the loss of the structure imposed by school and their social relationships — and the reality of being stuck at home with their parents, instead.

The sudden stillness of their days is also mixed with an uncertainty about the future. Sunday, the provincial government announced it would be cancelling ministry exams. Though dreaded by some, those exams would have been a chance to bring up their grades.

Clara, 15

Clara Chase, a 15-year-old Collège Notre-Dame student, says she's happy not to be in school but worried about the fact she won't have the chance to boost her grades, and what that means for the future. (Submitted by Clara Chase)

"I don't know if I should be happy about this because we don't have school, and school is like my number one stress source, but at the same time I'm really worried about the future," said Clara Chase, 15, a Secondary 4 student at Collège Notre-Dame (and the daughter of a CBC journalist).

Clara says she was counting on this year's final school term to boost her average, with the hopes of applying to a health science program at a Montreal CEGEP in the fall. 

"I had a plan. So I was going to get, like, 85 in everything. I was going to work double of how much I was working before," she said. Now Clara worries she won't get accepted into the program she wants next year.

Clara's friend, Coralie Samson, 16, worries her current grades could leave her struggling to get into CEGEP at all, let alone the one she's hoping to attend, Dawson College. 

Coralie, 16

Coralie Samson, 16, hopes to find ways to better her chances of getting into her dream CEGEP. (Submitted by Coralie Samson)

"If we don't go back to school until September, and the CEGEPs just look at my grades from first term and second term, then I'm a little screwed," said Coralie, also in Secondary 4 at Notre-Dame. 

Staying home instead of going to school has been a relief.

Coralie, too, says school is a major source of stress. 

It's the lack of an opportunity to better her report card that has been weighing on her, although she's been trying to find out if there are any extracurricular activities or lesson plans that could help.

"It's just the fact that I have to be with my parents all the time — and always the same people all the time," she said. "I might go crazy."

Sam, 16

For 16-year-old Sam Henderson, the loss of school life has been tough. He was involved in picking the songs for the end-of-year concert at his high school, FACE, in downtown Montreal. (They were going to sing songs by Daniel Caesar, Simon and Garfunkel, and a gospel rendition by Kanye West.)

"You sort of dream of that for your whole high school, is that last Sec 5 concert," he said. Henderson had been looking forward to his last months in high school, "to say your good-byes to some of the kids that you may not even see again."

Sam Henderson, 16, was looking forward to the big end-of-year concert at his school, FACE. He wonders whether he and his class will be able to mark the end of high school. (Submitted by Sam Henderson)

Anne Lagacé Dowson, the director of Tel Aide, a bilingual distress hotline, and the mother of two teenage daughters, says she feels teens' pain right now. 

"The level of anxiety is quite high," she said. "Their schedules are all out the window. They're staying up later. They're sleeping in. Everything that's predictable in their lives has been disrupted."

"The floor under their feet has disappeared, in a way."

Lagacé Dowson says Tel Aide (514 935-1101) is already being flooded with calls — including from young people — but she said the service has also seen an influx of volunteers, namely students, wanting to help. 

They've had to handle a lot in their young lives.- Anne Lagacé Dowson

She has seen the same goodwill from her daughters, too. Both have been offering babysitting services — the youngest, in their neighbourhood, and the eldest organized a childcare initiative when schools closed that connects parents with high school and college-aged students. 

"They're trying to figure out how to be helpful, and possibly putting themselves at risk. It's really hard to know how to socially distance but also to show solidarity," Lagacé Dowson says.

Lagacé Dowson has seen how world events have already defined her children's lives. In the past two years alone, important movements led by teens have already challenged world leaders on climate change and gun control

"They've had to handle a lot in their young lives," she said. 

Daniel Weinstock, a McGill University law professor and the director of the school's Institute for Health and Social Policy, believes the isolation has been harder on young people than adults.

Weinstock's three children are in high school, CEGEP and university. He is seeing how they are finding ways to connect with friends digitally, but he knows how important physical relationships are, too. His youngest daughter, Leah Elbourne-Weinstock, is 15.

"Even when we're beyond the strict confinement phase, she might not be able to hug her friends because even when we get back outside, we won't be completely in a risk-free environment," Weinstock said.

Leah, 15

Leah Elbourne-Weinstock, 15, and her father, McGill law Prof. Daniel Weinstock, have been seeing a lot more of each other since schools closed. (Submitted by Daniel Weinstock)

Leah says she has been trying to find ways to distract herself, reading, taking naps, texting and calling friends. Last night, she stayed up watching The Dark Knight on Netflix with friends online through the Google Chrome extension Netflix Party.

"I'm all right," she says over the phone. "I'm kind of bored."

Leah, who wants to study film in CEGEP, isn't worried about her grades, but she calls this new lack of structure "destabilizing."

"It's hard to really put into words because it's the first time I've ever kind of had to make my own routine like this. You're not seeing your friends. You're kind of seeing your parents a lot."

University and CEGEP students are, of course, caught up in the same scenario. 

Michelle, 20

Michelle Saghbini, 20, was preparing for her graduation fashion show at CEGEP Marie-Victorin, but she's come to terms with the idea that things are, for now, on hold. (Submitted by Michelle Saghbini)

Michelle Saghbini was on the verge of graduating after four years of studying fashion design at CEGEP Marie-Victorin. She'd been working day and night to prepare for her school's big fashion show, on top of her part-time job. 

"It's a very, very odd feeling because it feels like I need to keep myself occupied, but for what cause?" Saghbini said.

"What's being done right now is for everyone's safety, so in the end I feel a little selfish being worried about my fashion show."

For the first week or so, Saghbini had been keeping a "bucket list" of things to accomplish. She and her sister picked up their old instruments — trumpet, keyboard and flute — and started playing them again. 

But then Saghbini had to have a minor operation on her sinuses, which forced her to step back and reassess.

"We're all in this generation of people where everything is on the go, and we're always pressured to do so much and to accomplish so much," she said. "What's funny is that now people are setting these unrealistic goals for themselves, even in quarantine."

So she decided to take a break, instead.

"And it feels good."

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