Vermont youth discussed issues related to the pandemic and beyond during a virtual town hall hosted by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on Wednesday evening.
More than a dozen students spoke during the 90-minute panel discussion, which drew more than 400 viewers on Facebook and YouTube.
Panelists brought up issues ranging from the coronavirus pandemic and related mental health struggles to school curricula, student loan debt, economic uncertainty and political unrest.
“I think, sometimes, when we talk about the impact of the pandemic, we are not focusing a lot on young people, who, perhaps, have been hardest hit by what is going on today,” said Sanders.
Lee Blanco, a middle schooler from Brownington Central School, raised concerns that schools aren’t teaching enough about the Holocaust and LGBTQ+ history and issues.
“A lot of my classmates didn’t know that queer people could even be legally married in the State of Vermont, which is very upsetting as a queer person in the State of Vermont,” Blanco said. “It is difficult being in a space where nobody knows about the history of your community.”
Jayda Perry, a seventh-grader at Proctor Junior High School, described her social-emotional struggles during the pandemic.
She noted the stress of navigating frequently changes in school guidance and being socially isolated, as well as dealing with peers who, she said, mistreat her because she is unvaccinated.
“It’s just so much at one time, and it just has a really, really big effect on mental health and everything,” she said. Sanders answered a follow-up question from the audience about addressing the lack of access to mental health services in schools, stating, “We have to re-establish that sense of community, bring people together and … for those people who are really hurting, we need to make sure to get the treatment and care that they need.”
He added Congress has appropriated “many billions of dollars” to bring mental health services into schools and communities across the state.
Sam Blackman, a senior at Mount Anthony High School in Bennington, spoke to the social, economic and governmental instability his generation is facing, asking Sanders what can be done about it.
“It’s a lot that comes down on our generation right now,” he said.
Sanders agreed, stating, “You’re absolutely right.”
He noted that some members of Congress have been working to make things better for Blackman’s generation by trying to find ways to eliminate student loan debt, address climate change and provide affordable health care and child care.
“I wish I could give you an easy answer. I can’t. It’s tough stuff,” said Sanders. “But you’re gonna have to roll up your sleeves. Get as smart as you can. Read as much as you can. Learn as much as you can, get involved with other people as much as you can.”
Gabriella Olsen, a junior at Rutland High School, said she has been in a “dark place” over the past two years due to the pandemic.
She said she’s not alone.
“I’ve noticed a lot of my peers have gotten more anxious and have all fallen into deeper holes because we don’t know how to socialize anymore.”
Hunter Cargill, a senior at Bellows Free Academy-Fairfax, spoke about the challenges students like him face in being able to pay for college.
He said he’s not sure he’ll be able to pursue his dream of becoming a pediatrician because he can’t afford the education without accruing debt he’ll be paying off until he’s in his 40s.
“In the coming years, I really hope that there are some major changes to the financial system for college students so students can accomplish their goals and complete their childhood dreams without the hassle of debt crawling up the back of their necks,” he said.
“There are 45 million Americans that are paying off student debt,” he said. “People can’t get married. People can’t buy a home. They can’t have kids. Does that make a lot of sense? I don’t think so.”
Grace Wilson, a sophomore at Lake Region Union High School in Orleans, highlighted the need for the establishment of equity policies in schools to protect minority student populations.
She explained how students of color at her school have been bullied and discriminated against by classmates and staff alike.
“(Students) just need to learn in an environment that’s not going to harm them and is not going to cause them mental and, possibly, physical pain,” she said.
Sanders acknowledged that for all the progress that has been made in combating bigotry, there is still work to be done.
“We must continue to (fight bigotry) and understand that all people are human beings,” he said.
Max King, a senior at Peoples Academy in Morristown, spoke to his struggles getting access to mental health services and his experience as a transgender man.
“I have been fighting adults my entire life to believe me when I say I am in pain,” he said. “That needs to change and we need education for the adults in the building.”
King also addressed the dearth of culture in Vermont, citing it as a deciding factor in his decision to leave the state when he graduates, as well as a lack of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ history being taught in schools.
He then highlighted the national issue of bodily autonomy rights, which he noted can vary from state to state.
“Every person should have the right to control what happens to them and their body,” he said. “Please fight for the queer people in our country. We need it.”