Young people in South King County are struggling to live, learn and work through the pandemic — but they have some ideas on how things could be better.

They want schools to focus on getting mental- health services directly to them. They want more interaction with their teachers. And they want more opportunities to help their communities’ pandemic response.

That’s according to the results of a new youth-led survey, the Road Map Project, a communitywide effort to improve education in South King County, released last week. Road Map partners SOAR, King County’s Reconnect to Opportunity and the Community Center for Education Results (CCER) convened 22 young people to help formulate the questions, which were asked in May. 

The survey shows how the coronavirus upended youths’ lives — often differently across racial lines. In response to a question about online learning, 20% of white respondents said the lessons were “not useful,” compared to 27.6% of Latino respondents, 26.83% of Asian respondents and 37.8% of Black respondents.

One student wrote: “I wish I had a tutor to help me with my school work because it’s harder to learn using distance learning.”

Said another: “More focus on individualized learning would be nice. I think the pandemic has brought to light how much of school is wasted for the amount of learning done.”

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Maria Guizar, Opportunity Youth System Manager for King County’s Department of Community and Human Services, said that she is getting more referrals for students who are absent many days at a time. “Right now with schools not requiring kids to use their camera, that’s another way of being disengaged,” she said.

And it’s on schools to find ways to bring students back into the fold, said Nicole Yohalem, who worked on the project as CCER’s opportunity youth initiatives director. “Young people are not going to turn on their cameras and engage if they don’t trust and know the adults that are working with them.”

Guizar created four student internships so that some could continue developing and distributing the survey.

One of them, Tsion Debebe, 16, said the goal is to uplift youth voices and make sure adults recognize their needs. “I want to see people in the community recognize youth voice,” she said. “I’ve seen it myself, when people in schools or just staff, they don’t ask youth what they’d like. They don’t ask for feedback.”

The survey reached 217 respondents, mostly ages 16 to 18, including 37 Black people, 42 Asian people, 35 white people and 58 Latino people.

Forty-one percent were enrolled in high school, about one quarter were college students, 22% were in alternative programs and 13% were not in school. Most of them were in Burien, SeaTac, Tukwila and Federal Way. 

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While most said COVID-19 hurt their employment, education, relationships and mental health, a small subset reported doing significantly better. Five percent said COVID-19 affected their employment “very positively”; 8% said the same about their education. 

After first struggling, Debebe said she used quarantine to find clarity. “It’s given me a lot of time to think and reflect on who I want to be,” she said. She’s now enrolled in Running Start, a program that lets her earn credits from Highline College while she’s in high school. 

Nearly half said the pandemic hindered access to basic needs. “Because I have been unemployed during the pandemic, I may not be able to go to school,” one student wrote.

Another wrote: “Financial stability has been an issue at home. So I had to change my future plans for college.”

Youth said they wanted more mental-health support. Seventy-five percent said they managed stress by watching TV; 13% said they were talking to a therapist. “I can complete work fine, but I don’t feel like the schools are considering our personal well-beings sometimes,” a student wrote. 

Always being home can make seeking help harder. “My family doesn’t believe in that (mental health support),” another said. Eighty-eight percent said they were counting on social media to stay connected. 

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The beginning of the pandemic was tough for Ignacio Lopez, one of the interns, especially because he could no longer go to the gym. The 2020 Kentlake High School graduate missed varsity soccer and prom. And relatives from Mexico came for a visit the week before the outbreak, making it harder to focus on online school. The coronavirus extended their stay for months — they were due to leave just this Friday.

“It was a lot of noise,” he said. “It started out hard, but I got more motivated.”

Lopez said a relative is struggling with depression — so he learned more about it, as did other family members who previously questioned the value of seeking help.

Other solutions from students: They sought individualized instruction and ways to acknowledge the milestones they’re missing.

Lopez graduated from high school and started college during the pandemic. He’s studying law enforcement at Highland College.

It’s still online.