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American and Israeli high schoolers share their experiences coping during trying times.

Teens on both sides of the globe are adjusting to the new reality of learning online, far from their classmates. John Moore/Getty Images
Teens on both sides of the globe are adjusting to the new reality of learning online, far from their classmates. John Moore/Getty Images

We teens in America are rarely faced with the fear and unsettling knowledge that we need to stay in our homes for safety. But our counterparts in Israel are no strangers to such uncertainty, having been trained to take cover from missiles and sleep in bomb shelters. In the case of fighting Covid-19, though, we’re all in unchartered territory.

Israel took extreme measures to attack the coronavirus early on. On Jan. 30, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu banned travel from China, Italy and Singapore, and border control agents began refusing entry to anyone without an Israeli passport. All returning Israelis were required to self-quarantine for 14 days. Five weeks later, on March 4, Netanyahu added more countries to the ban: Germany, France, Spain, Austria and Switzerland. As the virus spread throughout Israel, the prime minister continued to crack down by shutting the courts, schools and other places of gathering. The government recommended that citizens remain at home and practice social distancing. Large gatherings were prohibited.

On Thursday, March 19, Netanyahu passed a law requiring all non-essential citizens to remain in their homes, with the exception of going out for vital needs like food, medicine and exercise.

Many of Netanyahu’s actions are similar to those being put into place here, specifically on the two coasts. Israeli and American teenagers are modifying their lives to survive this pandemic and learning to cope and work productively at home. While they do appreciate the time with family, it is difficult to be cooped up at home for a month.

Students here and in Israel are joining classes virtually, to mixed results. “Online classes are difficult and much less productive than a regular class; it’s harder to participate and less interactive,” said Ora Fischman, a 17-year-old from Modiin. Charles S., a 16-year-old from New York, agreed. “While I appreciate all that the teachers are doing, online classes can never be the same as learning in a classroom.”

Standardized testing is also being affected by the virus. Here, Advance Placement (AP) Exams, which last between two and four hours are being shortened by the College Board to 45 minutes, and the tests will be taken online; sections of material are also being eliminated.

Sophia K., a senior from New York, said, “I appreciate that the College Board is trying to help us, but I am nervous about the exams because a shorter test means that each question is worth more points.”

In addition, the SAT and ACT tests for juniors were canceled in March and April; they will be offered in June, July, August and September. This is causing significant stress for high school juniors who were planning to finish taking these tests in March or April.

For Israeli students, the standardized Bagrut tests, which juniors and seniors are required to take for college placement, are being altered. The Israeli government will now send out a precise list of subject matter that will be covered on the test because it understands that learning at home is new and much less productive than learning in class. Adi Arenas, a 17-year-old from Zichron Yaakov, said, “My teachers can now place emphasis on exactly what will be on the tests. This takes away some stress about these exams.”

While American and Israeli teens are both under lockdown, Netanyahu has taken a particularly drastic measure, one that really hits close to home for teens. The prime minister is now allowing Israel’s Internal Security Agency (the Shin Bet) to tap into cell phone data and track the location and movements of those in quarantine. Since 2002, the Shin Bet has secretly been collecting telephone data to protect the nation against terrorism. For the first time, Netanyahu has permitted the agency to use that data in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The agency has been keeping a close eye on those who have the virus, those who have come in contact with someone who has tested positive, and those who returned from abroad in the past 14 days.

While some support the strict policies of Netanyahu and applaud him for protecting the Israeli community, others are protesting the move as anti-democratic. On March 19, hundreds gathered on a main highway in Jerusalem, waving black flags and protesting this action.

As an American teen, the idea of having my cell phone tapped makes me a little uncomfortable. However, Arenas has a different perspective. “We are a small country, so we all need to look out for each other. The coronavirus can kill people in endangered groups [either those with pre-existing conditions or the elderly], so while it is a little anti-democratic, I think that, given the situation, the government tracking people in quarantine is understandable.”

Fischman agreed, but she recognizes the challenge of not leaving home for a month. “It’s necessary to track people who should be in quarantine. If the whole country follows the rules, this situation will end faster and many lives can be saved. It could be challenging, though, to follow all the strict procedures of the government.”

With American teens under lockdown, comparisons with Israeli teens’ experiences with terrorism seem inevitable. Arenas’ response to these comparisons is nuanced. “There are definitely some similarities, like the fact that everyone’s in lockdown at home,” she said. “But, at the same time, in the case of corona, we’re staying home in order to prevent a disaster, whereas, in times of terrorism, the situation is less in our control and much scarier.”

For teens here and in Israel, the current situation is both unprecedented and terrifying. Each country is trying its best to stop the spread of corona and keep as many people as possible healthy, while also not restricting them more than necessary. While the two sets of young people may be separated, we’re not so different from one another.

A month into the coronavirus lockdown, there is some evidence to suggest that the curve of cases in both countries is flattening, and our prayers for a speedy recovery are with anyone who is suffering during this time.

Rebecca Massel is a junior at The Ramaz School in Manhattan.

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