The Mental Health Toll of Keeping Schools Closed

Feb. 4, 2021 — As a pediatrician, I have the privilege of hearing from parents and the responsibility to help them. Lately, I have heard heart-wrenching stories of suffering: from the dad whose 14-year-old daughter is sobbing in her bathroom three times a week, depressed from being isolated, to the mom whose son is failing every subject in eighth grade online school, to the family whose daughter overdosed for the second time this pandemic due to thoughts of suicide.

The consequences of social isolation and school disruption for kids have been devastating. Many parents are struggling as well, trying to help with online school while balancing a job at home as well as household work, a challenge that has led women, who are carrying the majority of the burden, to leave the workforce in droves. In a span of 6 months last year, 2.2 million women left the workforce, and 100% of jobs lost in December were for women.

The pandemic has taken a huge toll on our mental health across the board. Depression and anxiety rates are skyrocketing, prompting a spike in linked issues like opioid addiction, which has increased by 40%. Suicide hotlines are showing a 65% increase, mostly from senior citizens and teens.

For kids, many of these mental health pressures are tied to online schooling. When we took kids out of classrooms, they lost not only a sense of structure but also a much-needed outlet for socialization — a place where they can play with and talk to their classmates and friends.

There are other important problems that are snowballing as well. Kids with special learning needs and disabilities have been at home without services. One in 4 kids who are food insecure aren’t getting the lunches that they would get at school. Many kids don’t have laptops or internet connections at home and may not be learning at all, which can result in years lost in development and education.

One significant, and understandable, worry has been the potential risk to teachers and school staff. When the pandemic started, there was concern that kids in schools could spread the virus among each other and the school staff. Fortunately, we now have plenty of data to show that if the schools follow strict health guidelines such as masking and distancing, this is not the case.

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Sara Bode, MD, a pediatrician and chair-elect of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on School Health, has looked at the research. Two large studies — one from North Carolina looking at more than 11 school districts and 90,000 students and one in Wisconsin that analyzed 17 schools — both showed low risk of spread when using masks and social distancing. In Europe, a large study from Iceland where they monitored 40,000 people found that kids catch and spread coronavirus half as much as adults. Note that no one was vaccinated in these studies.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, reiterated this at a White House COVID press briefing Wednesday. Based on the data, vaccinating teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools, she said. “It is urgent,” Bode says, “for kids to return to physical school.”

Plenty of data and experience now point to the fact that when following strict public health measures, we CAN reopen schools safely. Let’s help our kids get what they desperately need. And in the process help our families and society get to a better place.

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