New Data Highlights Protective Factors and Effects of COVID-19 on Vermont Youth

New data from the Vermont Youth Project reveals how protective factors can help young people reduce substance use as well as a greater need of structured activities during the out-of-school time hours in the third space. The new data also includes measures around COVID-19, with middle and high school students showing a significant increase of loneliness due to the pandemic.

“This is some of the only data in Vermont that asks how youth are doing during COVID,” explained Vermont Afterschool Executive Director Holly Morehouse. “Over half of the youth surveyed said COVID has negatively affected their educational experiences and this measure increases as kids get older. Almost half the students say that loneliness has increased due to COVID.”

Currently, there are five communities participating in the Vermont Youth Project (VYP), which is an initiative designed to boost positive youth development and protective factors on the local level. Participating communities are Enosburg, Fair Haven, Richford, Rutland, and Swanton. Each community is committed to the project for five years and working to build a local coalition including representatives from the school system, youth agencies, parents and caregivers, public health officials, afterschool and summer programs, clinical providers, law enforcement, policymakers, youth leaders, and/or community partners.

Students in the VYP communities took the survey in Fall 2020 with participation being voluntary and anonymous. The survey, designed for students in grades 7-12 by Planet Youth researchers at the Icelandic Center for Social Research and Analysis, included questions on substance use as well as protective factors around family, school, peer groups, and out-of-school time activities. This year’s survey added questions around COVID-19 including physical and mental health, family and peer relationships, and school experience.

“The survey was taken in very different circumstances this year,” stated Alfgeir Kristjansson, Senior Scientist at Planet Youth. “Now with kids spending much more time at home, there is a lot of impact on our youth population and within our communities. This COVID specific data is extremely important.”

Data from the survey, released in January 2021, points out a few important take-aways for middle and high school youth in the five communities:

  1. Substance use overall has decreased slightly from the previous year, but cannabis use is still high.
  2. Parental/caregiver support and monitoring are generally high but parental collaboration and co-communication is relatively low.
  3. Among youth that say they are well monitored by parents, the chances that they smoke, drink alcohol, or use cannabis is less. Those who think their parents will disapprove are much less likely to use as well.
  4. There is a culture of acceptance, particularly around alcohol and cannabis.
  5. Youth have a lot of unorganized free time (e.g., late outside hours) and lack of structured activities in out-of-school time is a problem across all five communities.
  6. Youth reported feeling safer at school as compared to survey data from last year.
  7. Over half of youth surveyed said COVID-19 has negatively affected their educational experiences.
  8. 67% of high school students and 64% of middle school students said that COVID-19 is currently adding stress, anxiety, and/or depression to their lives.

Based on this data, local teams are designing six-month action plans and holding community meetings to move positive youth development work in their community forward. Strategies in the action plans fall under categories around parent engagement, community engagement, youth voice, leadership and coalition building, and third space activities when youth aren’t at school or home.

Youth councils, comprised of middle and high school students in each VYP community, are learning about the data from the survey as well and starting a participatory budgeting process that will fund youth-led initiatives to address the VYP key findings in their community. The youth councils are meeting virtually and will fund projects slated for Spring 2021.

“We love how the Vermont Youth Project connects many smaller projects together to maximize our resources and community impact. Our VYP coalition plans to provide a series of local workshops to share data results and take the next steps in helping to create a vision for what would make our communities flourish for all who live there,” stated Heather Moore, LEAPS Afterschool Project Director and the VYP Community Lead for Enosburg and Richford, VT. 

VYP is supported by Vermont Afterschool, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring that children and youth in every Vermont community have access to high-quality afterschool, summer, and third space programs. Vermont Afterschool will be holding online workshops for VYP communities in the next few months focused on key findings from the data, as well as topics on parent collaboration and co-communication, the third space, and substance misuse. Vermont Afterschool is also helping VYP communities do community asset profiling to develop a better understanding of third space access in their communities. As a comprehensive effort to expand beyond the five communities, Vermont Afterschool will be engaging third space leaders and sports coaches to develop a skillset in youth mental health first aid, adolescent development, social emotional learning, and resilience.

“Our ultimate goal here is to help create communities where young people feel valued, as well as amplify youth voice on the local level,” stated Robin Katrick who coordinates the project and works as the Youth and Community Health Coordinator at Vermont Afterschool. “This feels like an important time to listen to what youth are telling us and work together to develop creative, collaborative ways to help our youth succeed.”