The lost year: Here's what the pandemic cost teenagers
by Alec MacGillis, photography by Celeste Sloman
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Everything looks the same on either side of the Texas-New Mexico border in the great oil patch of the Permian Basin. There are the pump jacks scattered across the plains, nodding up and down with metronomic regularity. There are the brown highway signs alerting travelers to historical markers tucked away in the nearby scrub. There are the frequent memorials of another sort, to the victims of vehicle accidents. And there are the astonishingly deluxe high school football stadiums. This is, after all, the region that produced “Friday Night Lights."
The city of Hobbs, population just under 40,000, sits on the New Mexico side, as tight to the border as a wide receiver's toes on a sideline catch. From the city's eastern edge to the Texas line is barely more than two miles. From Hobbs to the Texas towns of Seminole and Denver City is a half-hour drive — next door, by the standards of the vast Southwestern plains.
In the pandemic year of 2020, though, the two sides of the state line might as well have been in different hemispheres. Texas's response to the coronavirus was freewheeling. Most notably, it gave local school districts leeway in deciding whether to open for in-person instruction in August, and in conservative West Texas, many districts seized the opportunity to do so, for all grades, all the way up through high school. Students wore masks in the hallways and administrators did contact tracing for positive cases of coronavirus, but everything else went pretty much as usual, including sports. On Friday nights, high schools still played football, with fans in the stands.
New Mexico's response last year was the opposite. The state, led by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, took one of the most aggressive lockdown stances in the country, and issued stringent guidelines for school reopening, so stringent that Hobbs was allowed to bring back only a sliver of its students for in-person instruction.
For high school junior Kooper Davis, whose family lives 10 minutes west of the border, this meant no school and no football. This was a problem, because he loved both of them.
Kooper had always gotten straight A's, despite a tendency to leave big assignments to the last minute. He charmed classmates and teachers alike with his playful ebullience. His natural high spirits had carried him through his life's primary challenge to date, his parents' breakup when he was a small child. He started playing organized football at age 5 and could not get enough of it. He played basketball, too, but football had his heart. When the youth minister at church once apologized for missing one of his high school games, Kooper reassured him that it was okay, that he did not depend on an audience: “I play for myself," he said.
Kooper started heading off to quarterback camps and private training — in Atlanta, New Orleans and Tucson, among other cities — hoping to better his odds of getting to play in college, an aspiration that became more feasible as he sprouted to 6 feet, 4 inches tall, ideal for throwing over linemen, if only he could get his agility and coordination to catch up with his height. His parents encouraged him to aim for the Ivy League, but he knew its football was middling. Instead, he set his sights on Stanford, which excelled in sports and academics, and which he had visited for another football camp.
For student-athletes aspiring to play in college, junior year is key. It's that year's video that recruiters will look at, and that year's grades that admissions officers will scrutinize. Kooper already had a highlight reel, and it included some nice-looking throws, but it was from his sophomore season on the junior varsity team. Junior year was everything: He would be vying for the starting QB slot on varsity and taking a fistful of Advanced Placement courses. He would, in general, be getting to enjoy the experience of being Kooper Davis, a well-liked kid in a small city where the admiration flowed even from the youngsters he helped out at church, one of whom, a 9-year-old boy, was overheard gleefully reporting to his father that Kooper Davis knew his name.
But the start of the school year arrived, and there was no school. Kooper and his classmates would take their courses at home using an online program, with barely any contact with teachers or each other. His teammates would be allowed to practice only in small pods, which left them mostly doing just weightlifting sessions and agility drills. There would be no actual games.
The hope was that all this would be temporary. That was what the kids heard from the adults in charge, and they tried to believe it.
The coronavirus pandemic has been not only a health catastrophe, but an epic failure of national government. The result of the abdication of federal leadership in 2020 was an atomization of decision-making that affected the lives and well-being of millions of people. States, and frequently individual school districts — sometimes even individual schools and sports leagues — have been forced to grapple with emerging and occasionally conflicting science that has sought to decode the mysteries of a newly discovered virus. Local governmental and educational officials — the vast majority of whom aren't epidemiologists or experts on indoor airflow — have had to formulate policy under intense time pressure while being buffeted by impassioned constituencies on every side and facing the reality that any decision would impose costs on somebody.
One of the few aspects of this terrible pandemic to be grateful for is that it has taken a vastly lesser toll on children and young adults than its major precursor of last century, the flu pandemic of 1918-1920. That earlier pandemic's victims tended to be in the prime of life, withmortality peaking around age 28.
The novel coronavirus, by contrast, has hit the elderly the hardest. Themedian age for COVID-19 fatalities in the U.S. is about 80. Of the nearly 500,000 deaths in the U.S. analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of early March, — five hundredths of a percent of the total. The CDC has also recorded about 2,000 cases of aninflammatory syndrome that has afflicted some children after they contracted the virus, resulting in about 30 additional deaths. Doctors are still uncertain whether children who survived that syndrome will experience long-term heart issues or other health problems.
Plenty of parents continue to worry for their children's health amid the pandemic. But the primary concern from a public health standpoint has been the role that children and young adults might play in transmitting the disease to others. A growing body of evidence suggests that younger children are the to transmit the virus, but that as children older, their capacity for transmission approaches that of adults.
This has posed a conundrum from early in the pandemic: How much should children be prevented from doing outside the home, to keep them from contributing to community transmission of a highly contagious virus? Or to put it more broadly: How much of normal youth should they be asked to sacrifice? It has been a difficult balance to strike, on both a societal and family level.
In many parts of the country, particularly cities and towns dominated by Democrats, concerns about virus spread by children has resulted in all sorts of measures: closures of playgrounds, requirements that kids older than 2 wear masks outdoors, at colleges that reopened. “We should be more careful with kids," wrote Andy Slavitt, a Medicare and Medicaid administrator under President Barack Obama who was named senior advisor for President Joe Biden's coronavirus task force, in a . “They should circulate less or will become vectors. Like mosquitos carrying a tropical disease."
In Los Angeles, county supervisor Hilda Solis, a former Obama labor secretary, urged young people to stay home, noting the risk of them infecting older members of their households. “One of the more heartbreaking conversations that our healthcare workers share is about these last words when children apologize to their parents and grandparents for bringing COVID into their homes for getting them sick," she . “And these apologies are just some of the last words that loved ones will ever hear as they die alone."
As time has gone on, evidence has grown on one side of the equation: the harm being done to children by restricting their “circulation." There is thewell-documented fall-off in student academic performance at schools that have shifted to virtual learning, which, copious evidence now shows, is exacerbating racial and class divides in achievement. This toll has led a growing number ofepidemiologists,pediatricians andother physicians to argue for reopening schools as broadly as possible, amidgrowingevidence that schools are not major venues for transmission of the virus.
As many of these experts have noted, the cost of restrictions on youth has gone beyond academics. The CDC found that the proportion of visits to the emergency room by adolescents between ages 12 and 17 that were mental-health-related during the span of March to October 2020, compared with the same months in 2019.A study in the March 2021 issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, of people aged 11 to 21 visiting emergency rooms found “significantly higher" rates of “suicidal ideation" during the first half of 2020 (compared to 2019), as well as higher rates of suicide attempts, though the actual number of suicides remained flat.
Doctors are concerned about in childhood obesity — no surprise with many kids housebound in stress-filled homes — whileaddiction experts are warning of the long-term effects of endless hours of screen time when both schoolwork and downtime stimulation are delivered digitally. (Perhaps the only indicator of youth distress that is falling — reports of child abuse and neglect, whichdropped about 40% early in the pandemic — is nonetheless worrisome because experts suspect it is the reporting that is declining, not the frequency of the abuse.)
Finally, the nationwide surge in gun violence since the start of the pandemic has included, in many cities, a sharp rise incrimes involving juveniles, including many killed or arrested during what would normally be school time. In Prince George's County, Maryland, a Washington, D.C., suburb where school buildings have remained closed, in just the first five weeks of this year.
“An entire generation between the ages of 5 and 18 has been effectively removed from society at large,"wrote Maryland pediatrician Lavanya Sithanandam in The Washington Post. “They do not have the same ability to vote or speak out."
It has, instead, been left largely up to parents to monitor their children for signs of declining mental health as they determine whether to allow their kids to return to college or summer camp, to have a friend over, to go to the mall.
My family was among those facing these decisions. Our sons, now 16 and 13, have had fully remote learning in their Baltimore public schools for nearly a year now. For them, the primary release from the hours staring at the laptop screen would be sports, and for us, the answer was clear: My wife and I would let them play. The boys' respective high school and rec-league baseball seasons were canceled last spring, but their club teams were still playing through the summer and fall. This proved a godsend, a way for the boys to keep being active outdoors and around other kids, doing something they loved to do. For my older son, the baseball meant frequent traveling to tournaments out of state, in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Almost every weekend, we'd be back on near-empty highways, staying in near-empty motels, subsisting on endless takeout chicken sandwiches whenever we couldn't find an outdoor place for a meal.
This all started before the resumption of Major League Baseball and other professional sports, and it sometimes seemed as if our tournaments were the only serious competitive sports happening in the country, a sort of speakeasy baseball. Some precautions were taken, such as umpires calling balls and strikes from behind the mound instead of behind the catcher at home plate. The boys and their parents wore their masks inside the motels; at games, the parents spread out in the bleachers or on the sidelines. The parents ran the political gamut: liberals from Baltimore, conservatives from rural towns in Pennsylvania. But there was an implicit agreement that we were fortunate that our kids could keep playing, and we wouldn't do anything to screw it up. Those weekends remain for me some of the only redeeming moments of an awful year.
Football at the teenage level differs from baseball in a crucial respect: It is based almost entirely around high schools, without a parallel universe of clubs and tournaments. If high school teams aren't playing football, there is no football being played.
In New Mexico, Gov. Lujan Grisham that football and soccer would be prohibited for the fall season. “No contact sports are going to be permitted this fall," she said. “These contact sports are just too high-risk. If we do well, if we work hard, it is possible we could just be delaying them and they could be played later in the year and later into the season. Fingers crossed, and I believe in you that we can get this done."
As the hot Southwestern summer dragged on, Kooper Davis and his teammates placed faith in that possibility. In August, they were allowed to hold practice sessions capped at nine players each — not enough for a real practice, with offense running plays against defense, but better than the July sessions, which had been capped at five players. Kooper was vying against three other players for the starting quarterback spot. His arm strength had improved in the past year, so much so that his best friend Sam Kinney, a wide receiver, jokingly complained about the passes starting to hurt. And Kooper was a great student of the quarterback position; he had “the intangibles," his coaches said. But he knew he needed to work on his agility, which is one reason he took the practices so seriously. He was the first to come, and last to leave.
Even with fall sports canceled, the Hobbs school district, with almost 10,000 students, was still hoping to open the new school year for as much in-person instruction as possible. More than just scholastic considerations were driving this. In late April, six weeks into the spring's pandemic lockdowns, the community had been stunned by the suicide of an 11-year-old boy, Landon Fuller, an outgoing kid who loved going to school and had, his mother said, struggled with the initial lockdowns.
New Mexico has consistently had one of the highest in the country — it's roughly twice the national average — and preliminary state statistics would later show the 2020 rate as unchanged. Nationwide, increased by half between 2007 and 2018, a trend that has been linked to multiple factors, from the growing availability of guns to the spread of smartphones and social media. In New Mexico, mental health experts say, the factors also include high rates of depression on Native American reservations, and rural isolation in general.
Still, the news of an 11-year-old taking his life — after riding his bike to a field near his house — had the power to shock in Hobbs. “I think the big question we all have is why, and we will never know the reason why," his mother, Katrina Fuller, told an Albuquerque TV talk show in July. “The only thing that I was able to find was in his journal, was that he had wrote that he was going mad from staying at home all the time and that he just wanted to be able to go to school and play outside with his friends. So that was the only thing that I can imagine what was going through his head at that time."
Hobbs is heavily conservative. Lea County, of which it is part, would vote 79% for Trump in 2020. And unlike in many other, more Democratic parts of the country, the city's school administrators had the support of many teachers when it came to reopening: A survey in late summer found more than 70% of teachers in favor of in-person instruction. But the district's push to reopen was rebuffed by the state education department. After initially barring any schools from reopening in August, the state released “gating criteria" for districts that wanted to resume in-person instruction in the fall. They were among the strictest in the country. They allowed only for elementary-school instruction, and required a district to stay below an average of eight new cases per day per 100,000 residents over a two-week period. For Hobbs and the rest of Lea County, population 70,000, that meant no more than five new cases per day in the whole county. (By , Kentucky's daily threshold was 25 cases per 100,000 people and Oklahoma's was 50 cases. Hawaii, one of the states least affected by the pandemic, put its threshold at 360 cases over a 14-day period.)
Statewide in New Mexico, the restrictions resulted in zero high schools or middle schools reopening anywhere in the state. This confounded Hobbs school officials, especially because they could see open schools across the border in Texas. “We've got districts 30 miles away doing it safely," associate superintendent Gene Strickland said. “I get the fear level, but we see models that show it can be done. Allow us that opportunity."
Kooper Davis had always thrived in school. He liked his teachers, and they liked him. He had won over his ninth-grade English teacher, Jennifer Espinoza, with his willingness to engage on the works they were reading: “The Outsiders," “Romeo and Juliet," “To Kill a Mockingbird."
“He was very opinionated about why a character did this, or whatever something meant," Espinoza said. “Even if he was wrong or going in the wrong direction, he wasn't afraid to put his thoughts out there." It was a great class in general, she said: “Those kids fed off each other. They would come out with amazing answers." Kooper and Sam Kinney ribbed her about her tendency to lose her phone and took daily attendance for her. When Kooper was the only boy at Hobbs to make the Junior National Honors Society alongside 20 girls, Espinoza asked him if it felt weird. He grinned. “No, I like it!"
But Kooper hated virtual school. There were no friends to cajole, no teachers to charm. Hobbs wasn't even holding synchronous classes online for older high schoolers. They mostly watched video lessons on their own, using an online curriculum called Edgenuity. Kooper procrastinated, as usual, but now also found it harder to focus when deadlines hit. His grades started slipping from his usual all-A's. And these were the grades that colleges were going to be looking at.
As it was sinking in with Kooper and his classmates that school would remain remote for the rest of the fall, they got word in early October of an additional setback on the sports front. Not only would New Mexico remain one of a handful of states to bar high school sports, but practices would now be limited to just four players per coach. This meant they would mostly just be lifting weights, never mind that this often meant having many players in the weight room at a time (albeit in four-player pods), seemingly a riskier proposition than a regular practice outdoors. The football coach, Ken Stevens, could sense the morale plunging. “I seen a lot of disappointment," he said. “Lost hope." Some players stopped showing up. Making it especially tough, he said, was the nearby contrast. “That's the frustration," he said. “How come 10, 15 miles away, these kids can compete, can live a somewhat normal life?"
Kooper was despondent. “Man, this ," he told his teammates. “We need to be back on the field." He missed football so much that, on some Friday evenings, he headed across the state line to Texas to watch a game.
The schools in Denver City, population 5,000, had shut down amid the coronavirus lockdowns in the spring of 2020, but there wasn't really any question about whether the 1,700-student district would reopen schools in the fall. The Texas Education Agency was letting districts make the decision. The Texas Classroom Teachers Association had nowhere near the sway of unions in other states. This didn't keep many large urban districts in the state from starting the school year with remote learning. But Denver City and nearby small cities in West Texas opened schools. Students could choose a virtual option, but only a few dozen of Denver City's 492 high school students took it. As for teachers, there was no option: Their job was in the classroom.
Denver City is a humble-looking town, with a Family Dollar and no Walmart, but oil-and-gas revenues had allowed it to build a new high school two years ago. The building has good ventilation, and enough space that it wasn't hard to spread desks to allow for 4 to 6 feet between them, even in a class of 20 or more. Students were attending five days a week, without the hassle of hybrid schedules used in much of the country. They were required to wear masks in the hallways or while moving around a classroom, but many teachers allowed them to take their masks off at their desks, judging the spacing sufficient, though the teachers kept their own masks on. Lunch was still served in the cafeteria, but it never got crowded because many students went into town for lunch, at the McDonald's drive-through or elsewhere.
The school did not administer coronavirus tests on its own, but if a student or teacher tested positive locally, the school conducted contact tracing to determine if any other teacher or student had been exposed to them for 15 minutes or more, unmasked, within six feet. Anyone who fit that definition had to quarantine at home, initially for two weeks, eventually only for 10 days, in line with CDC guidelines. The district, which offered daily and weekly tallies of cases on its website, determined that the vast share of transmissions seemed to be happening outside school, as to be the case in other places, too. “The weekends is where they're getting it," said principal Rick Martinez. “If we could have them all week, this is the best place for them to be."
Over the course of the fall semester, about a dozen of the 70 staff members in the Denver City school missed time for quarantine, mostly after testing positive themselves, forcing the district to find substitutes — no easy task, but not insurmountable. All of the teachers returned. There were other challenges, such as the time in August when a player on the girls volleyball team tested positive and the school made the decision to shut down the team for two weeks, just in case another player had been exposed.
Overall, though, the fall was going so relatively well that many students who had chosen the remote option at the outset decided to come back to school, to the point where only about half a dozen were still learning at home. “It's been stressful at times," said the district superintendent, Patrick Torres. “It's taken a lot of time and effort, but our kids are getting instruction face to face."
Football went forward, too. The school capped attendance at its field, and required people to register for tickets online. The team in Seminole, 20 miles south, needed to cancel some games as the result of player quarantines, but Denver City managed to get through the fall without any cancellations, though there were some weeks where the roster got thin.
Kooper Davis came across the border once with a friend to see a game in Levelland, northeast of Denver City, and another time with his father, Justin, to see a game in Seminole. Justin, who works for a company that services oil-field equipment and runs a lawn care business on the side, noticed the reaction his tall, athletic son was getting in the Seminole stands. “People looked at us, like, 'Who is this kid and why is he not playing?'"
Kooper's father and his stepmother Heather, who had been together since Kooper was nine, had considered transferring him to a school in Texas, as other families were doing. This would have entailed sending Kooper to live with Heather's brother. (Kooper had limited contact with his biological mother.) They were even considering sending Kooper and Heather to Atlanta to live near one of the coaches he'd trained with. But Heather and Justin had just had newborn twins. Plus, Kooper wanted to play with team, his friends.
His parents began to notice how much the disruption and uncertainty was wearing on their normally buoyant son. On Oct. 9, Heather went on Facebook and posted a plea for reopening. “So honestly when do we stand up for our kids?? When do we all protest and say this is enough, do we wait until our kids lose life completely?" she wrote. “So many kids are turning to the wrong things to fill a void. Sad, it's so sad. Let's respect the ones who wanna stay home and respect the ones who are ready to go back!!"
Two days later, the town learned of another life lost: an 18-year-old who had graduated from Hobbs High that spring at a local park after receiving a medical discharge from the Navy. Kooper did not know him well, but went out to join friends who had gathered to mourn him.
The next day, a Monday evening, Kooper and his classmates held a demonstration for reopening school and school sports, one of several across the county that day. They held theirs at the high school football stadium, a hulking edifice that can seat 15,000. The students wore masks and sat spaced apart on the stands, holding signs that said “Let Us Play" and “SOS Save Our Students." They had the tacit support of their coaches and many of their parents, some of whom had helped shoot a testimonial video that was going to be shown on the scoreboard screen. But the video wouldn't load right, so several students went onto the field to give impromptu speeches before the 175 or so people who were gathered there.
Kooper was among the speakers, which surprised his friend Sam Kinney. “I knew he was pretty brave, but didn't know he was that brave," Sam said later.
At the microphone, Kooper introduced himself, then said, “I play football and basketball and those sports make up a big part of my life, and when I'm not here every day doing something with those sports, honestly, I feel really lost in life. Since I'm a junior, college is starting to cross my mind, and without this essential year of learning, I feel completely unprepared for college. I know I've still got another year, but time goes faster than you really think."
He continued, “I just believe we should be here at school and we should be here playing football. It's crazy to think that just down the road, they're playing a football season — they're almost with their football season. It's honestly ridiculous. And I'm willing to keep my teammate and classmates in line, minding whatever rules, just so I can be back here doing the stuff I love."
Mental health experts struggle to identify a precedent for the challenge this pandemic is producing for many Americans. In prior pandemics where the technology was not available for remote work or remote schooling, lockdowns and social isolation were not as extreme and did not last as long as what we've lived through this past year. And the psychological stress that the pandemic has produced for so many Americans of all ages is unlike so many more acute crises that we might experience in life, said Nick Allen, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oregon. “There's a difference between a stressor that makes your life unpleasant and intolerable and a stressor that takes away good things," he said. “For a lot of people, the stressor that COVID represents is one that takes away good things. You can't go to sporting events, you can't see your friends, you can't go to parties. It's not necessarily that you're experiencing abuse, though some may be. What's happening is that we're taking away high points in people's lives that give them reward and meaning. That may have an effect over time. The initial response is not as difficult as something that's stressful, but over time, the anhedonia, the loss of pleasure, is going to drive you down a lot more."
Even before the coronavirus arrived, teen mental health was a cause for growing concern. Researchers and mental health professionals had come to the conclusion that, as David Brent, a University of Pittsburgh psychiatry professor, put it to me, “One thing that's protective against it is connection to school and family and peers. We know that participation in sports and a connection to school can have a profound protective effect."
That social connection has been attenuated in the parts of the country that have largely shuttered school buildings and associated activities. The closures have also inhibited young people's striving for independence, youth mental health experts say. “A key developmental task of adolescence is autonomy-building," said Jessica Schleider, an assistant psychology professor at Stony Brook University. “That is what teens are driven to do: to grow self-esteem and a strong sense of who they are." With school and so much else closed off to them, and daily life mostly limited to the home, “the little bit of self-directedness they had before is gone. A lot are stuck in environments they didn't choose. The futures they had been working toward aren't options anymore."
As the pandemic carried through the summer, worrisome signals started appearing across the country. In addition to the on the rising share of visits to emergency rooms by teenagers in distress, a University of Wisconsin survey of more than 3,000 high school athletes during the summer found that more than two-thirds reported high levels of anxiety and depression, .
For Kooper, autumn brought no relief. Every weekday morning except Wednesday, he got up at 6:30 a.m., drank a protein shake, then drove to McDonald's for more breakfast, before arriving at school at 7 a.m. for a weightlifting session. On the way back, he'd pick up some Burger King breakfast for his two younger sisters, ages 11 and 5. The younger one would ask why he couldn't get McDonald's, which she preferred, on the way back, and he'd explain that traffic made it easier for him to do them in this order. Kooper would chat a bit with Heather and then shower and get to work on the computer.
There were signs that mental health was on his mind. On Oct. 16, Kooper shared a grim claim from a state representative on his Facebook account, which he seldom used: “The New Mexico Athletic Association reports there have been 8 student-athlete suicides since March 20."
Kooper looked so alone and hunched over as he worked that Heather one day posted a picture of him online to share his struggle with others. “I know my kid isn't the only one hurting," she wrote. “How is this life that they are living."
The Davises were sufficiently attuned to the mental health challenges of the pandemic that they held regular family visits with a therapist, and Kooper had gotten a couple of solo sessions as well before he and the therapist decided that was no longer necessary.
For a while, Kooper went to do some of his schoolwork at the Starbucks near the local Walmart, just to get out of the house, but then it closed down again when state restrictions tightened further. On some Tuesdays and Thursdays, he'd head to school for an afternoon session with the other quarterbacks, learning how to read defensive coverage. Some afternoons, he'd head over to the church his family belongs to, Christian Center Church, which is led by Sam's father, Jotty Kinney, who set up a small weight room for the boys to use. On Sunday mornings, Kooper would be back at the church for his youth-group service and to help lead sessions for the younger kids. And one weekend late afternoon in November, when it was below 30 degrees out, two dozen boys went to school to play touch football, the closest they had come to having a game.
On Sunday, Dec. 6, as semester finals were getting underway for school, Kooper was at church as usual, dressed as a baby for a monthly skit he and Sam did for the little kids. Later that day, he put up another Facebook post, his first since the one in October: “With these tough times going around, I know there are many of those in need, and I want to give back to my community," he wrote. “If any of y'all know anyone unable to leave their homes, I am willing to wait in line and pick up their groceries for them, or even run simple errands. Please pm me if you or anyone you know could use a helping hand."
The next morning, Dec. 7, Kooper went to his Monday weightlifting session. As he left, he told Sam, in typically unabashed fashion, “Love you." “Love you, too," Sam responded. On the way out of the athletic building, Kooper swung by to see the basketball coach, Eddy Martinez, to tell him he thought he might be able to play with that team, too, if the schedule that the state had floated the previous week actually came to pass: a truncated football season in February, followed by a truncated basketball season. Martinez said he'd be glad to have Kooper and that he was welcome to join one of their four-person practice pods that very day. Kooper said he didn't have his basketball shoes, but he would come the next day.
Coach Stevens got the news from the school principal that afternoon. Like others in Hobbs, he was not unprepared for such calls: There had been at least six suicide attempts by Hobbs students during the pandemic, according to district officials. But when he heard the name, Stevens was stunned. He asked, “Are you sure you got the name right?" The principal said he thought he had, but that he'd double-check with the school's designated police officer. He called back five minutes later to say that yes, he had gotten the name right.
Jennifer Espinoza got word from fellow teachers, one of whom asked her, “Hey, did you have Connor Davis?" The name meant nothing to her, but, she asked, did they mean Kooper Davis? No, they said. “Good," she said, “because Kooper would be out of the question."
It had happened while Heather was at the grocery store picking up baby formula and something for dinner. At about 1 p.m., Kooper had texted Sam on Snapchat: “Love you, bro." “Love you, too," Sam wrote back. That was the last he heard from his friend.
The next day, Coach Stevens gathered his players and assistant coaches in the team meeting room to discuss Kooper's death. There were counselors on hand, as well as Pastor Kinney, Sam's dad. The adults encouraged the players to speak about what they were feeling, not to hold things in. But the players ended up just wanting to go lift weights together.
The day after that, Wednesday, a fleet of empty school buses arrived at the high school from other towns, one from as far as Clovis, 130 miles away. The buses had condolence messages painted on the windows: “We are here for you," read the writing on the bus from Portales. “Pray for Hobbs," said the bus from Eunice. “Artesia loves you," said the bus from Artesia.
I reached Justin Davis on the phone that Saturday, after learning of Kooper's death from a mother in northwestern New Mexico whose daughter had also struggled with the absence of school and sports. Justin, as I would soon learn, is a large and taciturn man, but he was eager to talk, and urged me to come to New Mexico to learn more about what Kooper and his friends had been through. He was at a loss over what he and Heather might have missed. “I had an open relationship with my son," he said. “It's baffling to us to figure out why he didn't come to us."
Suicide is ultimately an unfathomable act, but Justin said he was sure of one thing. “No doubt, if my son had been in school on Monday this wouldn't have happened," he said. “He would've had an adult standing next to him, a coach saying, 'Kooper, quit being a dummy.'" The only way he could make sense of it, Justin said, was that “for about fifteen seconds of Kooper's life, he let his guard down and the devil came in and convinced him of something that was wrong." His only solace was seeing the effect the loss had on Kooper's classmates, who were, he said, turning their lives over to God, sending letters to the governor, and generally spreading word of his son's goodness far and wide.“I believe God needed him now," he said.
I arrived in Hobbs two days later, just in time for the memorial inside Christian Center Church. The parking lot was jammed with oversized pickups, and the sanctuary was standing room only. The stage was dominated by balloons in black and yellow, the Hobbs High colors, and large white letters and numbers, aglow with lights, that spelled KD 10, Kooper's jersey number. His home and away jerseys, his school backpack and a school photograph were also displayed. I found an empty space to stand in the back. There were many kids in the audience, and some were wearing raspberry-colored shirts with Kooper 10 written on them. Few people were wearing face masks.
A four-person band with two backup singers played “Another in the Fire," a stirring song by the Australian worship band Hillsong United: “There was another in the fire/ Standing next to me/ There was another in the waters/ Holding back the seas…"
Stevens was one of several coaches and trainers who spoke via a recorded feed played on the big screen over the stage. “I have no doubt that God is not done using Kooper," he said. “He is going to continue to use him to impact those around him, and God's glory will shine through."
Then the screen played a long loop of photos and videos of Kooper: wearing a Halloween costume, holding his younger sister on the beach, wearing braces, buried in sand, grinning behind Justin and Heather as they kissed at their wedding, attending a Dallas Cowboys game, singing in a school musical, holding a newspaper with his name in a sports story, sitting on a hay bale, holding the newborn twins, wearing a tux for a dance.
Heather came to the stage with Kooper's sisters. She began by reading some lines Kooper had written in his journal, including his paraphrase of a verse of Scripture, “If your enemy is hurting give him food. If he's thirsty, give him water," and his interpretation of it: “No matter who it is, no matter who the person is, if they're in need, help them. Help them. I don't know who it is, but you need to help them." She talked about Justin's love for his son: “That's his boy. Kooper's been Justin's rock." She recounted all their morning chats together, after his workout sessions. “I want him to come in from football practice and tell me how practice went. I want him to tickle the babies while I go eat," she said. “But that's me being selfish. And I want his happiness more than I want mine."
Pastor Kinney spoke last. “When you'd see him smile, you didn't know what was going on under that mop of hair he had," he said. “He was one of the most driven people I have known." He described Kooper's “protective loyalty," how he once ran in from the outfield of a church softball game to confront someone who was having words with Heather. He joked about Kooper letting one of his sisters sleep in one of his shirts, his willingness to dress up as a baby during the church skit for the little kids, and how Kooper was the only one of the young people he knew who would actually call him on the phone sometimes, just to talk. “No other kid in this day and age called," he said. “He didn't text you or put it on Snap. He called you."
When the service ended, people stayed on for a while to talk and hug each other. It was unnerving to watch: lots of people, few masks, no windows. The event was in gross violation of the state rules on indoor gatherings, which were supposed to be capped at 40 people, but no sheriff's deputy was about to intervene on this day. (The mass exposure did not lead to any reported local outbreaks.)
The people of Hobbs had for months been barred from letting their kids go to school or letting them play football and soccer. And now, after the death of a boy that many of them saw as linked to those restrictions, they were effectively, saying, screw it.
I chatted with some of Kooper's teammates, asking them how they were handling remote learning. “It's trash," said one, Kevin Melissa. “It's crazy," said another, Carter Johnson. “Everyone tells us to keep positive, but it's been almost a year. It's hard to be positive."
Before the event broke up, someone encouraged all of Kooper's classmates to get together on stage for a group photo. They eagerly did so, several dozen of them bunched together, beaming for the camera. The smiles were jarring in the context of a memorial service until one remembered the broader context: It was the first time they had all gotten to be together since March.
The next morning, I met Katrina Fuller, the mother of 11-year-old Landon, in the windswept parking lot of a strip mall. She had come to bring her teenage daughter to an outdoor kids' workout session that had been arranged hastily a few days earlier, after the news of Kooper's death. Despite the cold, two dozen kids, most in their early teens, had come out to the parking lot and were now doing various kickboxing exercises — spaced apart and with masks on — under the guidance of some martial arts instructors.
Katrina, a prenatal educator, had been trying for months to draw attention to the mental health needs of Hobbs' young people. She had been writing and calling elected officials and state bureaucrats and finally, with the help of the local state senator, Gay Kernan, had gotten the state to provide some training for local teachers in recognizing youth mental health troubles.
More resources had belatedly started pouring into the state: a $10 million federal grant for school-based mental health services, plus $500,000 in CARES Act funds. The challenge was less the lack of money than the lack of people to administer it: the state education department has only a single behavorial health coordinator, Leslie Kelly, who was struck by the rising concern about youth suicide during the pandemic given that the problem had existed for years in New Mexico. “I'm glad we care about this now, but our state was high pre-pandemic," Kelly said.
Even if New Mexico's overall numbers were holding steady, to those in Hobbs, three youth suicides plus a half-dozen other attempts by students in a matter of months in a population of 39,000 felt like its own epidemic. Shivering in the parking lot, Fuller told me about Landon, who had “just wanted to be everyone's friend." He was the sort, she said, who always went over to any kid sitting by themselves on the playground. And Fuller told me about the difficult weeks of the initial lockdown in the spring, when both she and her husband were feeling the stress of a loss of income. They had tried to make things as nice as possible in those weeks, with an online birthday party for the two kids, and an Easter egg hunt. But it was still hard. “All of our moods changed," she said. And it was so hard for someone of Landon's age to grasp time; the six weeks of closure seemed like forever.
I asked if she thought school should have opened in the fall, and she hesitated. She took the coronavirus seriously, she said. Her grandfather recently died of COVID-19. She was heartened by the launch of the exercise class but knew the town needed to come up with more, “just to let them know that we love them and they're so wanted and they're not alone." She started to cry.
She said she had started hearing from many other families around the country whose kids were struggling, including a mother who'd discovered her 6-year-old's plans for how to end her own life. “These are kids without mental health issues, with good families, kids that are loved," she said. Definitive explanations were, of course, impossible to come by. “I've heard it all," Fuller said. “I've blamed myself."
She had done a lot of reading on youth suicide since Landon's death, and had learned that rates were especially high in indigenous communities, like the Aboriginal community of Australia. In reading that, she had drawn a connection to American children who were being forced into a whole different way of life during the pandemic. “The theory is they're reacting to modern society," she said of the Aboriginal children. “Well, we're introducing them to a new society here, and they're rejecting it."
Recently, Fuller told me, she had received an envelope in the mail from the New Mexico education department. She opened it and found a letter demanding to know why Landon had been truant from his online classes during the fall semester. The bureaucratic oversight stunned her. “He would be in school if he wasn't dead," she said.
After my meeting with Fuller, I went back to the church. Sam was lifting weights with another friend in the small workout room that his father had set up. After I chatted with Sam, I walked with his father back to his office. He told me that he had been running through his last interactions with Kooper, over and over, searching for a warning sign, to no avail. All he knew was that Kooper had been upset about the closures. “When you put most of your things into achieving scholastic, and achieving athletic, and those things aren't available to you, your whole life, every goal you wanted to achieve is being taken away from you," he said.
Kinney said he and the Hobbs school superintendent had been talking a few days earlier about the need to get kids back in school. “Like Texas, we have to learn to live with it," he said. “You know, marginalizing our teens for other people that are high-risk, what do you pick? You know? Because, I mean, we're losing them. Not only that, we're losing years of their educational development."
Kinney said his brother-in-law, also a pastor, had become seriously ill with coronavirus, and he did not doubt its danger. But, he said, the current generation of kids “are the people that are going to be running our country one day. We're losing their leadership. They're going to be taking care of us one day, and this is how we're treating them?" He noted that one student at the October protest had carried a sign that read, “I'm able to vote in your next election."
“They'll remember these times," he said.
That night, I went to meet with Kooper's father and stepmother at their house, which sits out on the edge of town, near a small cattle farm. Meals cooked by friends covered the island in the kitchen. Justin and Heather told me how much comfort they were taking in the outpouring over Kooper, especially among his classmates.
But they said they were thinking of all the other kids in another way, too. If normally lighthearted Kooper, despite a loving family and natural gifts, had been struggling so much, what about all the others? How much distress was invisible to parents? “He was a kid who had everything, and this is where we're at," said Justin. “What's going on with those other kids?"
On my final day in Hobbs, I made the short drive across the Texas border to Denver City. It was startling to pull into the high school parking lot and see dozens of teenagers strolling out of the school building, wearing masks and carrying backpacks, on their way to lunch. Even more startling was hearing from school administrators about how well the football season had gone — the Denver City team made it to the second round of the playoffs — and about the great event of the night prior: the holiday band concert. To avoid dense crowds, the band had held three performances, with several hundred people attending each. In the large band hall, the band director showed me the dots he had taped on the floor to keep the 70-odd musicians spaced 7.5 feet apart even as they marched, and the cloth covers that one student's grandmother had made, decorated with the school's mustang logo, to go over the tubas, to keep them from emitting moisture. It was hard not to be impressed by the ingenuity, the determination to try to make things work, even now. “Whatever it takes," said Rick Martinez, the principal.
After being in Denver City, things seemed emptier than ever at the Hobbs high school complex — in normal times, the center of communal life in Hobbs. I was there to meet with Coach Stevens, who had also been wracking his mind trying to think of clues he hadn't picked up from Kooper. He could think of nothing, other than the fact that he had noticed that one of Kooper's grades had slipped below his norm. But he also knew how adolescents had the natural tendency to magnify troubles. “I fear for all the kids," he said. “One thing that maybe our decision makers don't remember is that when you're in high school or you're a kid, thinking you're the only one dealing with something. That's what you think when you're 16: Nobody is dealing with what I'm dealing with." Not to mention, he said, that the closures have simply given kids too many empty hours. “They've got so much time on their hands," he said. “I don't care how good a kid you are, if you have so much time on your hands, you're going to find mischief."
He told me how dearly he hoped the state stuck to its plan for a football season, truncated though it was. “My biggest fear is, you pull the rug on these kids," he said. “All we've been doing is trying to sell hope and belief to these kids that it's going to happen, but at some point, they're going to quit believing in you."
My last visit in Hobbs was to the home of Jennifer Espinoza, Kooper's favorite teacher. When I entered her bungalow, Espinoza, a friendly woman in her 40s, said that I should feel welcome to take my mask off, because she had already been through a serious case of COVID-19, several weeks earlier. This startled me, but not nearly as much as what she told me next: that soon after her own illness, her partner of 18 years, Abe, had died of what had strongly resembled COVID-19, though his initial test had come back negative. He had been away from Hobbs at the time, working an oil-field job in Odessa, Texas, and a co-worker he had shared a truck with later tested positive. Abe died on Nov. 30, at 49, before she could see him.
And then Kooper had died, a week later. It had been a terrible month, and it had left her uncertain about the best course for the Hobbs schools and sports teams. As the school year started, she had been among the majority of teachers who were willing to return to classrooms. This had only been confirmed for her as she saw how poorly the remote learning was going: not only did most students leave their cameras off, some wouldn't even turn on their microphones. “I can't see them, I can't even hear them," she said. “They didn't want to talk."
But then she herself had gotten the virus — she wasn't sure where — and its severity had hit home, even before her partner's death. She had swung the other way on reopening. Now Kooper's death was making her reconsider again. “If it would prevent another Kooper, then definitely, yes," she said. “We just have to weigh the good and the bad. Do we fear everyone coming back and possibly getting COVID, or do we fear losing another student more?"
In late January, Gov. Lujan Grisham would announce that schools could reopen for all ages on Feb. 8, but at maximum 50% capacity, which meant only a couple of days per week, and under the condition that they would close if cases rose again. Sports could start a few weeks after that, with masks and without fans. Nationwide, meanwhile, President Biden's push to reopen schools was explicitly leaving out high schools, leaving millions of teenagers with the likelihood of remote learning through the end of the school year.
In the same week as Lujan Grisham announced her reopening plan, I made another check of the coronavirus toll in Hobbs' Lea County. The county had suffered 112 deaths attributed to COVID-19, which worked out to a per capita rate slightly lower than that in the three Texas counties abutting Lea. New Mexico as a whole had lost 3,145 people, two-hundredths of a percentage point higher than Texas in per capita terms. The overall per-capita case numbers in Lea County were slightly higher than the three counties across the border, while the case numbers in Texas were slightly higher than in New Mexico.
Numerous factors had affected these outcomes, needless to say. The states had taken very different approaches with regard to their young people, but ended up in almost identical places as far as their coronavirus tolls.
Other tolls would be harder to assess, in a year of so much damage done, in so many ways. “There's too much hurt," Espinoza said as I headed out of her house after our conversation. “There always seems like there's something new to cry about."
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