Key Takeaways

  • COVID-19 has intensified existing socio-economic challenges as well as created new obstacles
  • Students in the Mass General Youth Scholars Program continue to engage with STEM education despite COVID-19 challenges
  • Food insecurity, academics and mental health are major challenges during COVID-19

COVID-19 has had a profound impact on youth in underserved communities. While the disease is physically mild for most young people, it intensifies existing socio-economic challenges and creates new obstacles.

"I do not know what the long-terms effects of COVID-19 will have on our young people, but I have seen them rise to the occasion, in light of the adversities that they deal with on a daily basis, be it poverty, racism or immigration issues," says Christyanna Egun, MA, senior director of Boston Partnerships, Equity & Inclusion with Massachusetts General Hospital's Center for Community Health Improvement.

Egun connects with teens in the Greater Boston community through the Mass General Youth Scholars Program, a four-year comprehensive program in which young people learn what it is like to work in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers. The program builds long-term relationships so that students in underserved communities feel safe and supported to share the struggles their families are facing—an effort that has become particularly beneficial during the pandemic.

Through conversations with students in the program, Egun has learned that among the many reasons families in these communities experienced severe economic hardships during COVID-19, one primary cause was due to parents being laid off from their jobs in the hospitality industry.

As a result, ongoing challenges that youth in underserved communities are experiencing during the pandemic include:

  1. Food insecurity: Students have told Egun and her colleagues that their parents simply can not afford to pay rent or buy food. School lunch programs and community food pantries are helping, but Egun worries about whether teens and their families have enough to eat. "I never thought we would be discussing people not being able to have a meal every day in the United States," she says. "That has been heartbreaking"
  2. Sick caregivers: COVID-19 rates are higher and illness is more severe in underserved communities where it is difficult to physically distance. Students are dealing with the stress of sick loved ones and often the financial burden of taking over for caregivers who do not have access to paid sick leave
  3. Community violence: This time of year, Egun says the program is often preparing for reports of a higher level of violence. "Throughout many communities in Boston, violence rates are currently at a level that we normally do not experience until the summer," Egun says. This is a result of limited summer opportunities for youth e.g. employment, camps and enrichment programs, and is a cause for growing concern about students’ safety. That said, the community has observed in many instances—most recently from the peaceful protests that took place in Boston, and are ongoing—“the students’ resiliency and commitment to creating a better world,” she says
  4. Disturbances in academics: Online learning can be difficult and the lack of personal connection can be less motivating. Many children in these communities are already playing academic catch-up due to their socio-economic circumstances and Egun worries that COVID-19 could be an additional inequitable barrier to their education. "Will it dampen their spirits to continue their education?" she asks. "Time will tell"
  5. Missed milestones: Seniors in the Youth Scholars Program have expressed grief over losing pivotal milestones such as prom, senior night and graduation
  6. Struggles with mental health: Pre-existing mental health issues have been exacerbated by isolation and the stressors of COVID-19, as quarantine can be especially stifling in communities with high housing density. Many college students are returning to multigenerational homes where they do not have personal space or a room of their own. "It causes a lot of friction and tension. People lash out in ways that they would not in any other circumstances," Egun says

Despite the many challenges that students are facing, they are still actively engaged with the Mass General Youth Scholars Program and showing up to virtual meetings being fully present and engaged.

"I am hopeful," says Egun. "They keep me hopeful and inspired. They have not given up. They are the future and we are really glad to be working with them."

Get Involved

If you would like to help support these brilliant young scholars, you can connect with the Youth Scholars Program to serve on career panels (Mass General employees) or make a financial donation.