As winter break begins at schools around the country, it’s natural for students to feel disappointed—maybe even depressed—about what they haven’t been able to do during the past semester amid the COVID-19 pandemic.  Athletes have been benched—not by their coaches, but by a virus—and the timeframe for their return to the playing field is uncertain in many regions of the country.   Students have spent more time in front of their computer screens than ever, as teachers delivered instruction through Zoom, Google Meet, and other online platforms.  In schools where students were allowed to return, physical distancing, masks, and morning temperature checks might have made students feel that they were entering a hospital ward rather than their familiar elementary school, middle school, or high school environment.

Hanging out at the local ice cream shop or restaurant quickly became a public health threat rather than a fun, after-school ritual.  Even the ability to earn a driver’s license—perhaps the classic teenage rite of passage—has been delayed in many instances as state DMV offices closed for weeks at a time in order to avoid viral spread.

Parents and guardians, too, have been affected by the scourge of COVID-19, in part through the financial hardship imposed by reduced hours, layoffs, corporate downsizings, and business failures across industries, including the restaurant, hospitality, leisure, travel, retail, and small-business sectors.

While young people and middle-aged Americans have no doubt faced hardships, older Americans have been most affected by the pandemic.  In many cases, they have taken precautions to avoid all unnecessary contact that could lead to exposure to COVID-19, including strictly limiting their travel to essential outings, if not quarantining entirely.  Grandparents who reside in nursing homes and long-term care facilities have been especially—and sometimes tragically—affected.  Over 76,500 nursing home residents across the United States have died of COVID during the past nine months.  In part due to the alarming spread of COVID, residents’ in-person visits with their family members were sharply curtailed, if not eliminated, as nursing home administrators scrambled to prevent COVID from overtaking their facilities.

Looking at these developments, one might conclude that 2020 was a year of isolation, missed opportunities, and desperate circumstances for a wide range of Americans.  All of these developments seem like bad news, and in fact, they are bad news, at least in the short term.  The human tragedy of COVID-19 will remain seared in the public consciousness for years to come.

The challenges of 2020 also highlighted our strengths as human beings and as members of a larger community.  Essential workers put their safety on the line to continue working in hospitals, food production facilities, grocery stores, factories, warehouses, auto repair shops, gas stations, convenience stores, restaurant kitchens, and countless other venues that make modern life possible.  Police officers, firefighters, and paramedics didn’t hang up their uniforms when the threat arrived in their workplaces—they met the challenge head on.  Truck drivers, delivery drivers, and postal carriers ensured that essential products—and maybe even some not-so-essential products that pandemic-weary shoppers placed in their virtual carts during an evening of online shopping—made it to their destinations.

Neighbors stepped up to the plate to make grocery store runs for their elderly neighbors; teachers put extra time and effort into developing lessons that could be implemented in a virtual format; and doctors, nurses, and support staff stepped forward—at great personal risk—to test, diagnose, and treat individuals who experienced the worst aspects of COVID-19.

Although it might be difficult to envision it now, the presence of a COVID-19 vaccine and the herd immunity that it will provide to Americans of all ages will result in a return to pre-pandemic life at some point in 2021.  In communities across the country, the businesses that managed to survive mandated closures imposed by cities, counties and states throughout 2020 will return to full operation, once again providing jobs and a measure of financial security to their employees.

Students will be able to attend classes in person five days of the week, school plays will go on, graduates will cross the stage to accept their diplomas, athletes will compete in their chosen sports, and Homecoming, Prom, and other events will return to the calendar.  To paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s classic 1984 presidential re-election campaign television ad, once the pandemic passes, it once again will be “Morning in America.”

The MWAH! Performing Arts Troupe will continue its work in 2021 to provide students with a sense of hope to overcome life’s personal challenges and obtain help from professionals when needed.  Even as the threat of COVID fades at some point in 2021, many students will continue to face obstacles to achieving their full potential.  Conflicts rooted in mental-health challenges—including anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide, and other expressions of self-harm—will continue to affect students in school districts across the country.  Substance abuse—including the abuse of opioids, alcohol, and other drugs—will remain a challenge for students across all socioeconomic levels and family backgrounds.

We believe that the videos that we have made available on our Web site during the past year—including videos on dealing with loss, mental health challenges, bullying and other topics—represent just a small slice of the potential for reaching students in the digital realm in the coming year.

In 2021, MWAH! will strive to utilize its digital presence on www.mwah.net, on YouTube, and through modern social media channels to reach young people by “meeting students where they are” in order to provide them with the encouragement to continue to persevere and overcome the personal challenges in their lives.  MWAH! will seek out videos from students themselves that address topics relevant to students’ social-emotional learning needs, such as dealing with conflict, managing emotions, and overcoming defeat.

MWAH! is also exploring a unique approach to mental health that would train students to be aware of  their peers’ mental health needs, and to refer them to a school or community-based professional if and when they have a concern.  MWAH! has always believed that students themselves—not adults lecturing from a stage or at the front of a classroom—are the best messengers to reach young people.  We believe that peers, with sufficient training, can indeed be “Messengers of Hope.”  We’re excited about what the future holds in this realm.

Through the availability of multiple vaccines and community-based vaccination programs across the United States, the storm of COVID-19 will eventually pass, and brighter days will lie ahead.

Young people have dealt with challenges before in America’s history, including in times of war and strife both in the United States and abroad.  The late Barbara Johns, who (at age 16) led a school walkout in 1951 to protest the inferior conditions of her all-black school in Virginia, will soon be honored with a statue in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.  Her statue will replace the rendering of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who supported not equality of opportunity and equal treatment under the law, but rather a system of slavery, subjugation, segregation and oppression.   Through acts both large and small, based in classrooms as well as in their communities, students can make real contributions to improve their lives and the lives of their peers.

MWAH! believes that its mission of “changing lives and saving lives” through its focus on the performing arts is as relevant as ever amid the challenges of 2020 and the opportunities to grow as an organization in 2021.  MWAH! wishes you and your families a peaceful, prosperous, and healthy New Year!