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Kids make history with COVID Memory Project

Nov 24, 2020 09:35AM ● By Jet Burnham

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

What was daily life like for kids living through the last global pandemic? We don’t really know.

“There are very few written accounts of the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic; we have pictures, but very few accounts of how people handled their regular lives,” Copper Hills High history teacher Lorna Murray said. “We are not going to make that mistake again. Personal accounts are essential for understanding not only the past, but also the present when the past gets repeated, such as this pandemic. Hopefully, a pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We must leave a better record behind us than what we got in 1918.”

Murray assigned her history students last spring and again this fall to share their personal experiences of living through this COVID-19 pandemic with The Utah Division of State History. Historical Collections Curator Lisa Barr is heading up a collection of primary source accounts from K-12 students. Young people are invited to share their pandemic experience—how it has affected their school, family, extracurricular activities and lifestyle. Kids can answer a questionnaire or submit journal entries, artwork or photographs which will all become part of a permanent collection in the state archives.

“We have access and ability to collect this info in a way they couldn’t 100 years ago,” Barr said. “Technology has so much to do with the way we're navigating the pandemic and kids are very savvy to that.”

Barr said the responses, which have come from children and teens across the state, have varied widely and are representative of how the pandemic is affecting them differently. The mood of the entries has varied, from the shock of changes in spring to the “new normal” by autumn. Some express frustration, others optimism. 

A 12 year old wrote:“We’ve had to wear masks now. And we have had a ton of deaths. I didn’t leave my house to do anything except go on a walk or bike ride with my family. It was weird being home so much.”

A 14 year old wrote: “I have many negative impacts from the pandemic, but I think that the biggest impacts on me are isolation from friends and extended family members, as well as cancellation of sports, clubs, and school. I could go on and on but I think that it is safe to say that the pandemic is one of the worst and best things I have experienced.”

Common themes in submissions so far have been students missing teachers, friends and family and missing out on end-of-the-year school activities and family traditions. 

One child shared: “Before the pandemic I would play baseball every Friday, Saturday or Sunday. And if I got lucky, all three days in a row...I still play baseball, but only with my parents. We go to empty parks and stay at least six feet away from people and it’s still fun...My family and I would go to a Dodgers game once a year, it's kinda like a tradition but this will be the first year in a long time we won’t be able to go.

A 12 year old wrote: “During quarantine my grandparents would do drive-by visits. We also did some door drop-off surprises for my cousins. We did lots of Facetime and texting. Once we were free to get out of our houses, we did a lot of activities together. I missed seeing my grandparents and cousins.”

Students have also shared how they’re discovering things about themselves they wouldn’t have known—like learning better online or strengthening family relationships.

I have been learning how to cook more complex meals...and I’ve been getting more into art recently,” said one child.

A teenager wrote: “I have recently started learning how to play the ukulele again. I have also learned some new tricks on the trampoline. I think that I have gotten better with house chores.”

Another wrote: “I’ve been a better person then I could’ve been. I’ve learned to get along with my little brothers. I’ve also had lots of time to spend with my big brother and we talked a lot. I enjoyed being with my family.”

Barr said this project gets kids excited about history.

“A lot of time, in order to get history to matter for people, you have to make it personal and so this is a great opportunity to do that,” Barr said.

Joy Anderson, who teaches U.S. history at Oquirrh Hills Middle School, agrees.

“It is always beneficial to have a perspective that students can truly relate to,” Anderson said. "If they see something from someone their own age, they always pay more attention to it than an adult's perspective.”

Anderson, who also assigned her students to submit entries for the collection, said her students will someday be answering these questions for their children or grandchildren for their history class. She said it is almost impossible to find primary sources from a young person's perspective for her class content so a collection of this kind will be helpful for future teachers.

So, in 100 years, students will be able to study this entry written by a 13 year old in the early months of the pandemic: “We have to be by each other all the time. My older sister and I try to hide in our rooms as much as we can. I also try to go outside and swing alone. I play a lot of video games or watch TV….People don’t visit each other anymore in my neighborhood. It has affected our state because we can’t go to school or church so a lot of people just stay home all day.

Some entries provided advice to future generations facing a pandemic: 

“It changes your life. You realize all the blessings you have and are thankful for your health. I believe it’s a great thing that happened to slow us down in life.”

I would want future generations to know that something like this truly changes your life! To experience something like this, well, it is really tough. It’s not easy. But, I do think maybe this will shape my future in a good way. So, never give up!

“Sure we have to wear a mask but it does not mask who we are or how we act. Some people exaggerate corona just a little bit, just a little...If people like me look on the bright side and see things from a different point of view, we realize that we are ok. We still get to do fun things and we can still learn things like normal.”

Barr said they will collect submissions as long as the pandemic continues. The submissions will be digitized and stored as part of a special collections archive which will be available for public research or, possibly, a public special exhibit in the future.