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'They Should Make A TikTok': Getting COVID-19 Information As A Teen In Vermont

North Country Union High School principal Chris Young is among the educators across the state who's working to support and re-engage with students who have fallen off the map amid remote learning.
Anna Van Dine
VPR File
At North Country Union High School in Newport, one teacher says many of her students first heard about new COVID-19 restrictions in class.

Staying on top of the latest news about COVID-19, and sifting through information online, can be a challenge — especially if you’re a teenager.

Josie Pearson is the kind of person who gets in a question of her own before being interviewed.

“What is life like as a journalist?” she asked, almost as soon as the phone call began. She was in the car with her mom, driving through Newport in the dark — it was just after 4 p.m. in early December. Josie Pearson is 15, a sophomore at North Country Union High School.

But I was the one who wanted to ask her a question, precisely because she’s 15 and a sophomore in high school: Do people her age know what they need to know about COVID-19?

Her response: “Oh, there are so many kids who — they just don’t know.”

A girl in a selfie photo
Credit Courtesy
Josie Pearson is a sophomore at North Country Union High School in Newport.

According to Pearson, many of her peers are either uninformed, misinformed, or don’t care about taking coronavirus precautions.

“They don’t necessarily follow all of [the] guidelines, and they have parties outside of school, and they keep their mask below their nose in the hallways, because they just like, don’t know any better,” she said. 

As for where they’re getting what information they do know, Josie Pearson says, there are two consistent sources: social media and teachers.

Aimee Alexander is a history teacher at North Country Union High School, and Josie Pearson’s in her class now. Talking about current events has always been a normal part of Alexander’s classes, but sharing news about the pandemic and Vermont health guidelines feels different.

“This information is like, critical to people staying alive,” Alexander said during a phone call on her lunch break.

High schoolers, even if they are at lower risk of suffering the worst effects of COVID-19, can still contract the disease." target="_blank">And as Health Commissioner Mark Levine has said, the Health Department regards the adolescent population “like the adult population in terms of their ability to be able to transmit the virus.”

"This information is ... critical to people staying alive." — Aimee Alexander, North Country Union High School government teacher

But not all teens have a reliable way of getting information. Principals and superintendents often send out newsletters to families, but no one is required to tell students anything.

Ted Fisher with the Vermont Agency of Education says the state shares resources with schools. But:

"We don't tell schools what to tell their families," Fisher said. "We don't ask or require that they pass that information along.”

Aimee Alexander thinks that without teachers like her, some teenagers wouldn’t be getting public health information. When new health guidelines came out mid-Novemberbanning multi-household gatherings, many of her students didn’t hear about it until she brought it up in class.

So she said that while this probably shouldn’t fall to teachers, “we don’t have another avenue to get the information out.”

More from VPR: Gov. Clarifies Social Gathering Rules

“Us as their teachers and the people that they see on a regular basis are the ones that they kind of rely on for that information,” said Kyle Behrsing, an English teacher at Hazen Union High School in Hardwick.

While Behrsing feels confident talking to students about things like sentence structure, he’s less well-versed in the questions students come to him with, like: What’s the science behind social distancing? But he feels an obligation to try to have those answers.

“In order for us to do our job the best that we can, we want to try and keep our building open, which means instructing kids about the guidelines and on what to do,” he said.

More from VPR: Answers To Some Frequently Asked Questions About The Coronavirus

Behrsing has seen some students resist those health guidelines, saying “that they didn't believe in [the virus], and they thought it was going to go away Nov. 4th, and those kinds of things.” On a daily — or sometimes hourly — basis, he sees students walking through the hall with their masks slipping down.

“You'll make eye contact with them and they'll be like, ‘Oh, you gonna call me on it now or what?’” Behrsing said.

He does. He remembers repeatedly talking to one student, and eventually the reminders turned into a conversation.

“Those are the conversations where it's really important to not shut the student down, but also open up like: So why, why do I have to keep telling you this? What's going on?”

"We don't tell schools what to tell their families. We don't ask or require that they pass [COVID-19] information along." — Ted Fisher, Vermont Agency of Education

North Country history teacher Aimee Alexander says that lately, some students have been coming to class with misinformation about the coronavirus vaccine.

“I’ve got a couple students who are like, 'No way, I’m not getting a vaccine, and how could they make a vaccine that quickly and it can’t be safe,’” she said. “There’s that kind of information.”

High school sophomore Josie Pearson has beenlearning about reliable sourcesin class.

“Most people my age,” she said, “definitely just get their information off of Instagram and don’t evaluate it, like they just kind of believe what they see.” And she’s getting into the news. “I’ll like, read articles that I find that are trustworthy about like, Phil Scott and whatever.”

Read all of VPR's coronavirus coverage from its reporters and collaborative partners here.

Several teenagers told VPR that they hear about COVID-19 from a mix of parents, teachers, and social media. The Vermont Department of Health does market directly to young adults on almost all social media platforms, according to a spokesperson.

But actual teenager Josie Pearson hasn’t seen any of that. She thinks it might help to go further. Her suggestion?

“Health care professionals, maybe they should make a TikTok, with like a dance, to reach out towards the kids," she said. "I mean, I would definitely watch it.”

"Health care professionals, maybe they should make a TikTok, with like a dance, to reach out towards the kids. I mean, I would definitely watch it." — Josie Pearson, North Country Union High School sophomore

Along with that, Pearson thinks teachers should share more information. Especially now, as cases are rising, and herd immunity from vaccination is many months away.

Or, as she put it: “We are literally in the middle of a global pandemic.”

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Anna Van Dine@annasvandine.

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Anna worked for Vermont Public from 2019 through 2023 as a reporter and co-host of the daily news podcast, The Frequency.
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