By Abigail Nelson

The March 31 “Stay Healthy at Home” order that Gov. Janet Mills issued to slow the spread of COVID-19 has shifted the way communities operate on many levels, especially for youth. Schools searched for beneficial ways to engage students in virtual learning, spring extracurriculars were cancelled, and regular social gatherings stopped. Technology doesn’t replace face-to-face meetings but does help young people stay connected.

Organizations and schools have been working hard during this time to continue to engage those they serve. Kate Fahey is Director of Programs for Gateway Community Services, which is dedicated to improving the lives of Mainers, especially New Mainers who recently immigrated to the state. Fahey primarily focuses on youth development work with those identifying as immigrants or refugees. “We have worked hard to develop a space to host youth and community events that are culturally sensitive, culturally inclusive, and culturally relevant,” she said.

Prior to the shutdown, Gateway averaged two or three events per week, mostly for youth. Combating and reducing the risks of social isolation is one of Gateway’s main goals. During social distancing, when many feel overwhelmed and alone, Fahey and her colleagues try to offer at least one virtual event per day. Whether a class is painting or dance, these help people continue engaging with others. Youth are responsive and willing to try this new way of socializing, Gateway is finding. “Their energy, resilience, and creativity are really shining through right now,” Fahey said. “I feel grateful to bear witness to that.”

High school mentoring programs offered by several Portland-area schools provide extra support in different areas of students’ lives. Deering High School matches about 75 beginning high school students with older high schoolers or early college students. “The program has created dynamic and enduring friendships,” said Roy Chatterjee, the program’s director. During this pandemic, those friendships are providing students with an extra layer of support. They connect with each other to study or catch up. Relationships formed earlier in the year now are important in the fight against social isolation.

Portland High School’s mentoring program pairs about 40 students with community members. During the school year, mentors and mentees meet weekly for social activities, help with schoolwork, or any other academic need, such as college preparation. Jennifer Cook, the program’s director, is grateful that technology allows people to stay connected. Social media has provided a quick and easy way for her to reach out and see how students are coping. The shift to virtual learning initially came as a shock. Students felt stressed by unknowns like grading and how to submit assignments. Most impacted were those with developing English skills, without internet access, or needing in-person contact to master the material.

Social media can’t replace in-person socialization, but virtual meetings do enable youth to stay connected with each other and with their schools and communities.