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Back to School? The Psychological and Social Impact on Children's Health

child_mask_school_shutterstock_1676759620By Deirdre Imus, 8-13-2020
In times of crisis, information is often incomplete or becomes muddled, making decisions more difficult. 

Over the summer, health experts debated whether schools could open safely this fall. Because the coronavirus impacted different regions of the U.S. differently, the federal government has taken the position that each state should decide when and how to open.  In early August, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, gave a cautionary green light to K-12 schools and colleges, saying the emphasis should always be on the safety and welfare of children, teachers and their families.

Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently stated, “The unique and critical role that schools play makes it a priority to open schools safely this fall and to help them stay open. This will enable students to receive both academic instruction and support, as well as other critical services. In order to prioritize opening schools safely and helping them remain open, we need communities to adopt actions to slow the spread of COVID-19 now. We owe it to our nation’s children to take personal responsibility to do everything we can to lower the levels of COVID-19 so that they can go back to school safely.”

Every parent should reserve the right to decide what is right for their child and their family, and school systems should take this into account in developing a holistic approach to safely reopening.

There was also seemingly conflicting information about how susceptible children are to COVID-19.  Statistically, the numbers indicate a low percentage of children (under 18) being hospitalized with coronavirus or virus-like symptoms (see CDC graph by age group, March 1 – July 25). Most children diagnosed with the virus also tend to exhibit less severe symptoms. Yet an outbreak at an overnight children’s summer camp in June showed the coronavirus could easily spread at gatherings of several hundred without strict adherence to safeguards.

It is true that the impact on physical health can be severe, even fatal. Like adults, children can pass the virus while showing little or no symptoms, and those with respiratory illnesses and other underlying health issues are more vulnerable.

Psycho-social impact

Research into how COVID-19 operates is vitally important in finding ways to effectively prevent and combat the virus, and we will all be learning more as new information becomes available. Beyond the physical impact though is something potentially more pervasive and far reaching -- the psychological and social impact of coronavirus on our children. What happens when kids remain isolated from close physical contact with their friends and extended family for extended periods?  What fears do children harbor about the virus? What impact do those fears (real or imagined) coupled with extended lockdowns have on developing toddlers, children and teens?

Over the coming weeks we will be examining this critical issue in our new blog series, “Children’s Health in the Time of COVID-19.” We do not claim to have all the answers, but we will review some recent research and observations, and hope to raise your awareness and share new insights. To make this series more meaningful to parents, we are dividing the topic into age groups and devoting a separate blog to families of children with special needs.


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There is little doubt the coronavirus has taken a toll on our national psyche. A review of scientific surveys of U.S. residents found that the mental health of about one-third to one-half of all adults has been substantially compromised by reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. What impacts families–from worries about employment to real job losses, food insecurity, and foreclosures–can take a hidden toll on children. While the national suicide rate has already been climbing for almost two decades, increasing by 35% between 1999 and 2018, an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association – Psychiatry suggests that the fallout with having to deal with the changes because of restrictions made on all of us will likely push rates even higher.

While the suicide statistics on children under 18 during the pandemic are not yet known, it’s clear that the psychological impact on our youth runs deep. We know that when students do not feel safe and connected to their friends and others, it stokes anxiety, depression and thoughts about suicide -- and schools provide a buffer.[1,2]  It is true that the number of children testing positive for COVID-19 is increasing, but we also know that children account for 0 to 0.5% of all COVID-19 deathsin 44 states reporting (as of 8/6) according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and these numbers include those with underlying conditions. The overwhelming majority of children who contract COVID-19 only experience mild symptoms. So it is important to stay levelheaded and not be driven by fear.  We need to be there for our children and keep all things in perspective. 

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Footnotes

  1. Foster, C. E., Horwitz, A., Thomas, A., Opperman, K., Gipson, P., Burnside, A., Stone, D. M., & King, C. A. (2017). Connectedness to family, school, peers, and community in socially vulnerable adolescents. Children and youth services review, 81, 321–331. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2017.08.011
  2. Loukas A, Roalson LA, & Herrera DE (2010). School connectedness buffers the effects of negative family relations and poor effortful control on early adolescent conduct problems. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 20(1), 13–22

 

Resources

Resources that Support Distance Learning: Digital Resources by Content Area
(California Department of Education)

Information and Resources for Schools and Personnel
(U.S. Department of Education)

 

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