The pandemic has dissolved those rituals, and Bryant now spends most of her day isolated, in front of a computer screen. The public health crisis has also affected her one-year relationship.
Sometimes, when Bryant and her girlfriend try to decide how to safely spend time with one another, the conversation ends in an argument. The couple do not live together and each time they meet up, they risk infecting each other and their respective households. So despite living in the same city, quality face time is rare.
“There’s no way for us to be in a relationship and actually do things that people do in a relationship during covid,” Bryant said. “We haven’t been able to cuddle and hug, even the most basic forms of intimacy.”
Dating and navigating new relationships are the hallmarks — and sometimes burdens — of being in high school or college. But when nearly every piece of public health advice suggests keeping six feet away from others, relationships are suffering.
Friendships are hurting, too, as students miss out on parties, school dances and casual interactions with classmates. And while the problem is temporary, it could have long-term effects on the way young people socialize and form relationships with others, experts warn.
Guillermo Garcia, 17, has stayed in close contact with his best friend and girlfriend since his high school in Northern Virginia shuttered in March. But he misses chatting casually with his classmates in the hallway or on the fringes of a party.
Most of his friends and acquaintances have been reduced to rectangles glimpsed during Zoom class. Or to a texting and FaceTime partner, though the frequency of those exchanges has dipped lately.
In his loneliest moments, Garcia finds himself wondering: If I’m ever at a party again, will I even know what to do?
“I do worry I’m getting rusty [socially],” Garcia said, adding that he’s become blunter with his thoughts. “I sometimes say things now that are totally out of context because I’m just so used to saying exactly what I think, because I spend all my time around my family.”
Isabella Russo, 17, who also lives in Northern Virginia, shared similar anxieties. She was a junior when the pandemic hit, and her senior year has taken place entirely online. She missed out on junior-year prom, as well as the house parties that typically accompany the last two years of high school in America. An aspiring actress who joined every theatrical production her high school put on, Russo also misses the opening- and closing-night celebrations.
Russo, whose parents have medical conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus, has had to decline every invitation for what passes for parties in 2020: socially distant gatherings in people’s backyards.
“It’s freaky to think the first time I attend a big group event or crazy party could be in college,” Russo said. “It will be scary to be thrust into that without ever having that experience in high school, when it’s smaller and you actually know everybody.”
That fear is very real, said Mary Alvord, who runs a mental health practice targeted to young people in the D.C. area and co-authored the book “Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens.”
“Imagine you’re sitting by yourself in your house for a year, and then suddenly you go to college and have fraternity and sorority parties to deal with? It will be tough,” Alvord said.
Many students have managed to retain their closest friendships, but they miss the people they knew only through extracurriculars, such as theater or math club. Some students are also worried about their lack of a love life.
With the disappearance of events such as homecoming and prom, high-schoolers have lost the chance to go on formal dates. And, of course, the pandemic has also largely nixed opportunities for more casual romantic encounters.
All of this has fostered a situation, Alvord said, in which young people are failing to learn key social skills normally acquired during teenage years: the ability to interact with strangers and potential romantic partners, to learn about different people and different cultures and to become more tolerant and open-minded.
“They’re missing building blocks,” Alvord said. “There is a concern that if you don’t have these casual acquaintances, and casual dating things, it will be difficult when you’re thrown into it suddenly later.”
In college, things are a bit different. Some students, without the watchful eyes of parents, are re-creating the social lives they lived before the pandemic.
Mario Aguirre, a junior at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said he still hangs out with friends, but in small groups.
“We kind of have this understanding to vet the people that we’re seeing, but also know if you’re feeling sick, just stay home,” Aguirre said. “My choice of who I hang out with is very limited because I want to limit my social circle.”
Dating is harder to manage.
The 21-year-old was seeing a woman who goes to college in Wisconsin, but the distance forced Aguirre to end things, he said. With coronavirus cases surging throughout the country, he couldn’t predict the next time they could safely visit each other.
Now, a mixture of boredom and loneliness have led him to dating apps.
“It’s been hard to make friends. It’s a different type of loneliness,” Aguirre said. “It’s even harder to make new friends that are platonic.”
Aguirre said he’s met up with two women he met on Tinder, and each occasion has come with awkward, but necessary, conversations about health. He said he likes to know the last time his partner has been tested for the coronavirus and if she’s feeling sick.
“It’s been difficult,” he admits.
Even if the connections made on dating apps do not lead to lasting, romantic relationships, they’re useful for meeting “interesting people,” said Ruby Scanlon, a junior at Northwestern University. Without the usual meeting places — bars, on-campus clubs and parties — dating apps are the most reliable bet.
“I feel like everybody was cooped up in their hometowns and when everybody came back to college the first week . . . everyone was going on dates,” Scanlon said. “It’s been a cool way to make friends.”
Scanlon admits she’s lucky. This school year is her third on the Evanston, Ill., campus and she’s secured a steady group of friends.
Incoming freshmen, however, might have a harder time creating social lives when they arrive on campuses in the fall.
Whenever Garcia, the Northern Virginia teenager, worries about socializing in a post-pandemic world, he reminds himself of the way he used to feel most summers after coming back from month-long visits to Colombia, where his aunts, uncles and grandparents live.
After speaking only Spanish for four weeks, Garcia would return to the United States anxious that he’d forgotten how to communicate in English.
“I’d be worried, how can I talk to my friends?” he said. “And some years it has been weird. But I’ve always been able to pick up where I left off — and so, me being an open and social person, I don’t think that part of me will be lost.”