Health News Digest

Unseen harm being done to children being kept out of school

October 19, 2020

COVID-19’s Unseen Casualties

By Michael D. Shaw

A guest column by Michael J. Goldberg, MD

Months ago, our nation’s initial response to COVID-19, whereby we would work to protect the vulnerable and then quickly pivot back to near normal, completely changed. Right before our eyes, it morphed into a highly politicized election year fear-mongering shutdown of our country, with disastrous results that are now eclipsing the harm caused by SARS-CoV-2 itself.

The reality is painfully obvious: While COVID-19 is a serious illness, our politicized response to it is making things much worse for families, and from my perspective as a pediatrician, unquestionably worse for children around the country.

In May, the American Academy of Pediatrics, a group of more than 67,000 pediatricians, made the statement that children were at risk of significant morbidity, and in some cases mortality, if they stay home from school. How refreshingly honest! Perhaps, authorities would finally understand how much harm we are doing to children by keeping them from attending in-person school.

Every day in my office, my nurses and I hear of younger children responding very poorly to distance learning. While some older children seem to perform satisfactorily under this format, they are still missing out on major childhood and adolescent developmental points that are supposed to be part of their lives in school, such as interaction with friends, participation in sports, music, the arts, and so much more. Any pediatrician can see the harm we are doing to children when we halt activities that contribute to growth, learning, and development.

In addition to the observable problems, there are multiple negative developmental and social issues occurring in society now that affect all children. This situation should be unconscionable to parents and school authorities, but instead, it’s being accepted en masse, as if we were living in a Communist or Socialist society. One frightening aspect of this enlarging disaster is that many of these young children will never get back onto a good track in school. Let me explain.

Not only is the school system in general completely failing the younger children (some much worse than others), but this is occurring at a time when we are trying to help minorities and the disadvantaged secure a better future. Yet, we are doing a huge disservice to minority/disadvantaged children. Consider such a child, in a home without good access to technology, and the difficulties with learning from home become readily apparent.

Why do so few admit that even when students have the resources and technology to participate from home, distance learning is a failure? The teachers are not connecting (most of them know it), and when a parent does not have the ability to supplement and fine-tune the information for that child, or the time to supervise and help young children with home schooling because the parent must work outside the home, virtual school is worthless and becomes a dead end.

How many of these kids could catch up if given help—in a school setting—but how many are becoming so turned off to learning, that they will never recover? This is an utter tragedy and will long outlive the current COVID-19 pandemic.

While SARS-CoV-2 is a nasty virus, it is not—by and large—a deadly pathogen. Therefore, what justification is there for a continued shutdown in many states of businesses and schools? The clear mental, psychological, and educational harm being done to our children must stop now. Not after the election—NOW!

How well are school-based nutrition programs faring during shutdown? And what happens to abused kids, who are often first noticed by school nurses and teachers?

Medicine was never supposed to be political. Bear in mind that any teacher or student at risk of infection in this current pandemic would also be at risk from any other respiratory virus. The appropriate response would be to test for background viruses and identify those at risk and help them take proper protective measures, but let everyone else return to full activity, full employment, and full school. It is surely past time that we focus on those who may be at risk, restrict those individuals, and let otherwise low-risk children and adults get back to their lives, their livelihoods, and their educations.

As a pediatrician, when I hear those who not only want to continue these shutdowns, but possibly impose more after the election, I find the prospect terrifying for its potential damage to parents and their children. Kids need to return to in-person school, and they need to do so immediately.

I can’t express this strongly enough: If the damage presently being done to our children by school closures is not stopped immediately, the ultimate harm to our society and our children may never be reversed. We must focus on our children, not political agendas. It’s high time we prioritize the one minority we can all agree on—our children!