Talking to young people about COVID-19

Spencer West brings stories and inspiration to students every day with Live with WE Schools. Here, he addresses the elephant in the room.


Talking to young people about COVID-19

Spencer West brings stories and inspiration to students every day with Live with WE Schools. Here, he addresses the elephant in the room.


As schools closed and the world settled into a new normal in the wake of COVID-19, WE jumped into action, creating new resources to support young people, educators and families. Renowned speaker Spencer West helped launch Live with WE Schools, a daily online program filled with education and inspiration. This is a transcript of the show from the early days of the pandemic where Spencer speaks directly to young people, laying out the situation, addressing the uncertainty and sharing stories of hope, courage and community. He wrote it with WE storyteller Jesse Mintz. Ok, so this is day three of Live with WE Schools… day three of me talking to you from my living room. Maybe you’re in your living room too. Or maybe you’re sitting around the kitchen table with your parents or guardians, or in your bedroom with your sisters and brothers. You’re all at home because schools are closed. But we haven’t talked about that yet. We haven’t addressed the elephant in the room.

So that’s what we’re going to do now. We’re going to invite the elephant in for a chat. We’ll get to know the elephant a bit better. And, in the end, I hope we’ll come to understand why things are so different right now, what people like your parents and really smart scientists are doing to keep you safe, and what we can all do to make the most of our time together. I’m also going to share some of my favorite good news stories from around the world because there are some incredible people doing inspiring things that will give you all the feels.

Understanding the pandemic

First things first, let’s give the elephant a name: COVID-19.

Maybe you’ve heard that name on the news or seen it on social media. Maybe you’ve heard your parents talking about it. It’s the name of the virus that’s currently making people sick. It has another technical name, but we’ll stick with COVID-19.

A bit of the backstory: COVID-19 belongs to a family of viruses that we’ve known about for ages. Most of the other ones don’t cause us much harm, but COVID-19 is dangerous because it’s new. We don’t have immunity to it yet. The first cases of COVID-19 appeared in China in December 2019. Since then, it’s spread to more than 100 countries around the world. That sounds scary, I know, but here’s the thing about COVID-19: the vast majority of people who get it will feel like they have a cold or the flu. They’ll spend a few weeks in bed eating ice cream or soup and rewatching their favorite Netflix shows.

That’s the good news. The less good news is that things are going to be different for a while. Schools are closed. Sports seasons are cancelled. You can’t see your friends. There’s no basketball or ballet. If you’re disappointed that things are closed, I get it. If you’re angry that people can’t come to your birthday party, I hear you. It’s a strange time. But this strangeness won’t last forever. And, in fact, it’s really important that we all lean into the strangeness because it’s how we can help keep people safe and healthy.

"WE are at our best when we are caring for one another. And we are all in this together. Everyone you know, everyone I know, everyone in your city. Everyone, in every country around the world is united to end this pandemic. And we’re going to."

Physically distant—but socially connected

Let me explain. The virus travels from person to person in the air or on surfaces when people sneeze or cough. The more people you avoid being around, the less chance you have of getting sick. For the next little while, we all need to put a bit of space between us and others. It’s called “physical distancing” and it’s one of the keys to keeping people safe. The other key is washing your hands often with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. That is much much longer than you think so I recommend picking a song to sing to yourself while you scrub.

Just because we’re physically distant doesn’t mean we need to be isolated. Now more than ever it’s important to talk your friends, FaceTime your cousins, record a little video message for your grandparents, form a book club with classmates, decide on a movie to watch with pals and come together online to discuss it afterwards. It’s hard not getting to see the people you love. We all have to find ways to fill that absence.

Dealing with anxiety

Ok, I’ve given you a ton of information. If some of it has made you feel worried, that’s totally normal. The truth is, there is a lot we don’t know yet. The one thing we do know for certain is that this will pass and it will all get better. Until then, I’m going to let you in on my secret weapon for dealing with the concerns and anxieties that creep into my head sometimes. I call it my “worry box.”

You can make your own worry box at home from an old shoebox or cereal box and decorate it however you like. Put it somewhere where everyone in the family can access it. Whenever you or anyone in your family feels a worry—like how will we celebrate my next birthday or what will we do if we run out of toilet paper—write it down and put it in the box. At the end of the day, as a family, pick out a worry and talk about it. You may find that others share your worries or that they have solutions to help you worry less. Even if they don’t, talking about your worries as a family will make you feel safe and supported.

Good news stories

Alright, it’s time for those good news stories I promised. I’m going to start with some science stories and end with some more touchy feely ones.

Story number 1: Wuhan, the city in China where the outbreak began, closed all of the temporary hospitals it put up to deal with the people getting sick from COVID-19 because the rate of new infections has slowed so much. That is incredible news—and it shows that we know how to beat this.

Story number 2: Researchers are getting a handle on the virus. They are working day and night to study COVID-19, creating better tests, treatments and eventually a vaccine.

Now onto the people stories… Caring for others is contagious and a bunch of do-gooding Canadians started a movement called “caremongering.” Maybe you saw it trending on Twitter. There are tons of examples of community-based acts of kindness, from neighbors delivering groceries to those who are unable to go out to artists playing free live shows to keep people entertained at home. Here are some of the most moving.

Story number 3: In Canada, more than 30,000 people have signed up online for local caremongering groups in cities and towns across the country. That’s 30,000 people willing to help a neighbor if they need it. I know we’re not supposed to hug right now, but knowing there are so many people out there who want to help just feels like a reassuring virtual hug to me.

Story number 4: As the Spanish city of Seville began enforcing social distancing, a fitness instructor offered a free class for people stuck in their apartments. He stood on the roof of a building and led people in exercises on their balconies.

And this one’s my favorite, story number 5: A man in France, Elisha Nochomovitz, ran a marathon on his balcony. That’s 26.2 miles on his 23-foot-long balcony. He said he did it as a tribute to the medical workers keeping us all safe. If he can do that, I can try and get my 10,000 steps in my apartment.

Here’s what I want to leave you with. We are at our best when we are caring for one another. And we are all in this together. I don’t just mean me and you. I mean all of us. Everyone you know, everyone I know, everyone in your city. Everyone. The people working the grocery stores that keep us fed and the doctors taking care of the sick. The scientists working on vaccines and the people staying home to protect the vulnerable. Everyone, in every country around the world, is united to end this pandemic. And we’re going to.

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A renowned speaker and author of the bestselling book “Standing Tall: My Journey,” Spencer shares his journey from losing both legs at the age of five to surmounting countless challenges to inspire others to tackle their own obstacles.