We all want young people to thrive. The foundation for young people’s health and development are the relationships, experiences and environments in which they live, including the systems they encounter. Adolescence is a unique time of discovery and exploration. To become competent and capable adults, young people must seek out new experiences and build new relationships beyond their own home. Many young people find those nurturing relationships and positive experiences at school, during after-school programming, playing sports or in their community with adult neighbors and mentors.

COVID-19 has disrupted teenagers’ opportunities to learn from people and experiences beyond their own homes. Deliris/Shutterstock.com

COVID has disrupted these foundational parts of adolescence. Young people have limited, if any, in-person time with teachers, coaches, club leaders or neighbors. Access to positive community experiences such as community dinners or events, extracurricular activities or after-school jobs have become limited or non-existent. These disruptions, although critical to slow the spread of COVID, have curbed opportunities for discovery and exploration.

Although COVID restrictions have disrupted these foundational parts of adolescence for all, it has highlighted the inequities that exist in access to developmental relationships, opportunities for exploration and community conditions that support healthy development. Some young people have increased toxic stress in their household, like abuse and neglect, or having a parent who’s dealing with a substance use disorder. Other young people experience toxic stress in their community through harmful community conditions. Systemic racism and oppression are key sources of community toxic stress that negatively affect children and families. Decades of discriminatory practices and policies in our housing, education, health care and employment systems mean that Black and Indigenous people, people of color, LGBTQ+ people and people experiencing poverty are less likely to have safe and stable housing, quality education, equal access to health care and stable, living-wage jobs. Young people are incredibly resilient, but resilience in the face of systemic barriers can still result in inequitable outcomes for young people and families.

Communities and school districts have proven over this past year that they can make large shifts in how we live, work and learn. With new COVID response funds coming to municipalities, school districts, counties and the state, we have a unique opportunity to invest in all our adolescents and address long-standing inequities. This will require more than tweaks to current systems. It will take larger shifts in how we channel resources into the education system and how we work to improve community conditions, like living wages, transportation and stable housing. Let’s seize this opportunity to invest in all young people by investing in the places where they live, learn, work and play.

Schools are working hard to address opportunity gaps and are operating as a key resource for many young people to meet their basic needs like food, health care, internet access, behavioral health supports and connection to others. They have plans to expand their programs to better meet the needs of young people and families that have been most affected by the pandemic and past inequities. This includes expanded English Language Learner programs, more cultural brokers, investment in behavioral health responses and providing school credit to students who worked or provided child care during the pandemic. Let’s support our young people by supporting our school districts and encouraging continued investment in these programs.

Communities know the importance of safe parks and open spaces, opportunities for out-of-school programming, quality and stable housing, safe drinking water, access to healthy food, reliable transportation and living wages. Improving these community conditions is the most effective strategy we can invest in to close the gaps in access to resources and equity in health outcomes for community members who experience higher levels of toxic stress. These supportive community conditions have more influence on the healthy development of young people than any program, yet they are not available in every Portland-area neighborhood . Let’s invest in and prioritize improvements to those community conditions specifically where they are limited, and ensure those efforts are led by the people who live there.

Investing in schools and community conditions is the most effective way to reduce sources of toxic stress and support resiliency and better behavioral health for young people and families.

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