Civil Conversation Challenge for Teenagers, Issue 1: Covid-19 and Our National Response


From Sept. 22 to Sept. 28, our Student Opinion column will be devoted to the issues we’ll be discussing in our Civil Conversation Challenge, but, as always, any teenager is invited to respond. We hope you’ll not only post your own thoughts, but also reply to the comments of others.

Should masks be worn by all Americans? Should schools reopen with in-person classes? Have state and local governments been too quick — or too slow — to lift restrictions on public activity? Should we rush to make and distribute a coronavirus vaccine, even if it means skipping or shortening trials?

These are just some of the questions we hope you will explore in this Student Opinion forum, part of our Civil Conversation Challenge.

And now, only weeks away from the presidential election, the choice between Democrats and Republicans has become, in many ways, a referendum on President Trump’s handling of the pandemic.

Do you think President Trump has provided effective leadership during the pandemic? How might a Biden administration handle the crisis differently? What would a second term for President Trump mean for our ongoing fight against the pandemic? Do you think Republicans or Democrats have better ideas on how to combat the coronavirus and revitalize the economy?

Where to learn more:

To keep this list manageable, we’re focusing on the candidates’ positions and New York Times resources, but we encourage you to consult a variety of reliable sources to learn about this topic.


Possible questions to address:

The pandemic may have reminded Americans that they were all still bound together. But it also began demonstrating, day by day, how dangerously far apart they were.

Sick people, lacking paid leave, couldn’t afford to stop working. Others who lost their jobs lost their health insurance, too. White-collar workers on lockdown discovered they were counting on people without health care to endanger themselves by delivering food. Poor children began falling behind in school because their parents couldn’t afford internet access. African-Americans in states like Louisiana began dying in numbers out of all proportion to their share of the population.

What weaknesses in our society have been exposed by the pandemic? And what can we do to address those inequalities to strengthen our society?

  • What should education look like as we navigate this pandemic? The New York Times Magazine asks, “Will this be a lost year for America’s children?” The pandemic has disrupted traditional schooling for millions of children, with cities and suburbs across the country switching to remote-only or hybrid models of instruction. How can leaders on local, state and federal levels better support the nation’s most vulnerable students: homeless students, those who do not have access to computers, laptops or the internet and students with special needs? What role should the president play to support students, teachers, parents and schools during the pandemic?

  • What should be our country’s approach to masks? In our increasingly polarized country, even mask wearing has become a deeply politicized issue. Most public health experts believe that wearing masks in public helps to slow the transmission of the coronavirus. Mr. Biden has said every American should wear a mask while outside for at least the near term and that all governors should mandate mask wearing. President Trump, on the other hand, has ridiculed mask wearing at times and mocked Mr. Biden for his mask wearing at a campaign rally. Is this political divide about wearing masks, that has sometimes even turned violent, inevitable? How should we balance individual freedom and liberty and the needs of the larger community?

  • How should we balance safety and urgency in developing a coronavirus vaccine? Researchers across the world are racing to produce a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine. Currently, 37 vaccines are being tested in clinical trials on humans, and at least 91 vaccines are in the preclinical phase. Mr. Trump has made optimistic assertions that a vaccine could be ready before the Nov. 3 election, but many scientists, regulators and public health experts are concerned that the rush to distribute a vaccine before it has been fully tested for safety and efficacy is potentially dangerous. Mr. Biden has accused the president of trying to rush out a vaccine for electoral gain. Are you concerned that politics and the United States election might affect the vaccine approval process? Should drug manufacturers push ahead to make and distribute a coronavirus vaccine, even if it means skipping or shortening trials?

  • What does the future look like? How should we prepare? What steps should our government leaders take? In the Opinion essay “What the Fall and Winter of the Pandemic Will Look Like,” Jeneen Interlandi, a member of the Times editorial board, writes:

It’s safe to assume that case counts will rise in the coming months, as colder weather forces more people indoors (in the North, at least) and as more students and teachers return to in-person schooling. Colleges are already grappling with outbreaks, and infected students are already returning home to seed a further spread in their own communities.

Are you optimistic about the next phase of the pandemic? Will countries like the United States see the virus slow in the months ahead? Or is a new surge on the way? Do you think new restrictions and lockdowns are coming? Can businesses, workers and the nation survive another round of shutdowns and closures?

Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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