A year ago, Key Club seniors’ lives changed almost overnight, with a sudden loss of proms, parties and, perhaps most difficult, graduation ceremonies. Meanwhile, Key Club members in their third year of high school commiserated with their senior friends while crossing their fingers life would return to normal for the Class of 2021.

And here we are. We’ve had some good news: Vaccines are increasingly available, so many of Key Club members’ family and older friends might have received their shots. Availability will soon open to all those 16 and older in the United States. Some schools are planning outdoor graduation ceremonies that incorporate health and safety protocols.
But other areas are seeing COVID-19 cases surge yet again. Vaccine distribution varies greatly among cities, regions and countries. And troubling variants that spread more easily are on the rise. It’s still not the carefree celebration season many 2021 grads had hoped for.

It’s especially difficult for those students who had pinned their plans on believing their final high school chapter would be back to a pre-pandemic type of normal, says Heather Servaty-Seib. Servaty-Seib is the interim associate vice provost for teaching and learning at Purdue University in Indiana and a counseling psychology professor who researches loss and grief experiences in both death and non-death situations.

“I heard one of my colleagues say that people who envisioned an end over and over again, and then had that end not be the end, are doing less well today,” she says. “They have repeatedly gone through a cycle of picking a time when things would be more normal, and then reaching that and being disappointed, over and over again. It is a whole level of disappointment and grief.”

That disappointment is heightened by the lack of social interaction teens have endured during the past year. Virtual meetups help, but nothing replaces in-person visits, Servaty-Seib says. And students living in climates with changing seasons, who depended on socially distanced, masked-up outdoor visits during warm weather felt, especially isolated in the colder months. Following established health requirements, while crucial for physical well-being, can also take a heavy emotional toll. Servaty-Seib sees it firsthand at Purdue.

“All of the compliance and all of the restrictions have started to really wear on the students. They’re just getting fatigued. They are fatigued with not being able to be with each other and fatigued not to have as many in-person opportunities.”
That fatigue, however, doesn’t always translate to getting support. Servaty-Seib says the decrease of in-person classes means professors and instructors don’t have as many opportunities to interact with students and monitor their emotional states. And students often hesitate to take the step to get help on their own.

“Students are thinking, ‘Everybody’s struggling. Why is my struggle more than anybody else’s?’ And so I think they’re not wanting to burden people.”

That’s where Key Club advisors and members of sponsoring Kiwanis clubs can help. Servaty-Seib says if an opportunity arises for students to safely gather outdoors, socially distanced and masked, it can be beneficial to their mental health.

“I hope that there is some creativity that can be brought to things happening in person,” she says. “Students need it. They’re craving it, really. It doesn’t take much of a dose of in-person interaction to really be quite helpful.”
Also, encourage soon-to-be-grads to take time to reflect on their experiences, not just from high school and Key Club, but from the past pandemic year. Servaty-Seib and some of her university students are studying the “gain/loss framework.” They’ve been surveying high school students on what they have lost during the pandemic — learning opportunities, socializing with friends, visiting grandparents and other extended family members, etc. — but what they have gained as well.

“Sometimes it’s self-confidence in terms of their ability to face something that they didn’t know that they had the ability to face. Some talked about being able to build stronger relationships with their siblings or their parents. They talked about learning new skills, like cooking. Some of the activities that they would not have had the time to do if they were in school fulltime.”

And just as key as cataloguing those gains and losses is realizing they can coexist. Students tend to think dichotomously, Servaty-Seib explains, without considering the in-between.

“Nobody wanted this pandemic to happen, and the deaths that are involved in it are gut-wrenching. And yet as humans, we do have the capacity to see what was learned. That’s often an easier way to think about it. What did you learn about yourself? What did you learn about your family? What did you learn about your school, your peers, your community that you might not have? And being honest about that, both the losses and the gains. Just because you might say you learned something doesn’t mean you wanted this to happen or that you wanted these deaths to occur. We can and do hold both, both the losses and the gains.”

Even if your Key Club members don’t immediately open up about their experiences and feelings, it will give them a starting point to sort out their emotions. And when they are ready to talk, simply being there goes a long way.
“When teens want to talk about these issues, as much as possible, we have to drop what we’re doing and be present with them. They don’t always talk about challenging things, so it is important to be ready to be flexible when they are moved to share. If they can have engaging conversations with supportive adults, that’s helping them to practice their own self-reflection. If they can have those conversations out loud with us, it’s really that skill-building around self-reflection and self-monitoring and self-consideration.”

And there is no better time for that than when approaching a major life milestone — no matter what form it will be taking this year.

“A ritual like graduation is a natural time for that consideration,” Servaty-Seib says. “It’s usually a time for people to look back on their high school experience and say, ‘What am I taking with me and what am I leaving behind?’ This year, it’s heightened.”