If there’s one thing parents have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years, it’s the importance of personalized learning for children. “Distance learning exacerbated existing educational inequalities and was detrimental to the educational attainment of students of all ages and exacerbated the growing mental health crisis among children and adolescents,” the statement said. American Academy of Pediatrics†
While the number of new COVID cases across the country is rapidly declining, hospitalizations are peaking and deaths are still rising. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention†
In November 2021, a vaccine approved for emergency use in 5–11-year-olds would help restore some semblance of normalcy to children when it came to school, extracurricular activities or play dates again. But Omicron had other plans.
dr. Lucy McBride, a physician in Washington, DC, and a Yahoo News Medical Contributor, is one of 13 medical experts who “Children, COVID and the urgency of normal” toolkit as a guide to giving children in schools after the Omicron peak a sense of normalcy.
(Some comments have been edited for clarity.)
Yahoo News: Why is there an urgent need to restore children’s sense of normalcy at this point in the COVID-19 pandemic?
dr. Lucy McBride: Both the Surgeon General and the American Association of Pediatrics and other expert groups have declared a pediatric mental health emergency because there is evidence that levels of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, emergency room visits for suicide attempts, substance use disorders and general despair are high in children 18 and younger .
This is happening at the same time as we are living through a pandemic in which children have been deprived of their normal social and emotional coping skills, or tools, and the normal course of school life. It is important to recognize that some children themselves suffer from COVID-19. Some suffer from the loss of a loved one to the virus. However, some children suffer from the loss of safety and security in their daily lives.
Returning to school will not heal every child’s wounds, nor will it be the solution to 22 months of a pandemic. But going back to normal is a just, fair, and smart way to help children heal the wounds of a traumatic experience.
How are healthy children generally affected by COVID-19?
COVID poses very little threat of serious illness to students in highly vaccinated communities and to students who have been vaccinated themselves. COVID is a flu-like risk for unvaccinated children, and new data shows that even unvaccinated children under 5 years old have very little risk of serious consequences. That’s not to say we haven’t lost children to COVID-19. Tragically, we have. It means that the vast majority of children who get COVID-19 make a full recovery.
What are the risks of children getting ‘long COVID’?
Long COVID is a rare complication of COVID-19 infection and is clearly a concern for children. studiesconsistently find, however, that post-infection symptoms are similar in children who had COVID-19, compared to children who had other non-COVID infections. Long COVID is an area that we need a lot more research into. But most public health officials and doctors I speak to don’t think we should organize schools and restrictions around the potential for this very rare complication.
What should the bigger picture of health look like for children?
Children need to start reclaiming more normality, and ideally a better normal, because COVID is only one threat to their health and well-being. Tragically, children can get COVID, they can get very sick. Tragically, children have died from COVID-19. But health is about more than the absence of COVID-19. Health includes social and emotional connections. Health means going to school, feeling safe and in many cases being fed. So it is important that we adapt our policies to the evolution of the pandemic, while moving towards endemism gradually and in different parts of the country at different times.
What are possible policy solutions?
Thirteen public health and medical experts [including McBride] across the country have a ‘Urgency of a normal school advocacy toolkit to help school policy makers and all who make school decisions to understand the facts to make balanced, nuanced decisions, and to understand that health is more than the absence of COVID-19 for school children.
Our recommendations are:
1) Continue to encourage vaccination for all eligible children, especially where vaccination coverage is lowest.
2) Continue to upgrade school ventilation systems. We know that the coronavirus prefers to spread in crowded and poorly ventilated areas.
3) We recommend discontinuing asymptomatic testing and contact tracing. There is abundant evidence that this does not significantly reduce school transmission, and this data is supported by the recommendation of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
4) We also recommend bringing children back to normal socialization at lunchtime. Leisure is critical to children’s social, emotional and interpersonal development, and after two years of virtual learning and social distancing, it’s time to nurture childhood friendships and strengthen the bonds of our school community through socialization.
5) We recommend removing mask mandates in schools after the Omicron peak and when local hospital admissions are low. For example, below 10 per 100,000, and in the meantime continue to encourage vaccination, encourage people who are sick to stay at home and encourage people who wish to continue masking to wear a well-fitting N95 respirator, which protects and does not trust the wearer on the behavior of other people around them.
6) Finally, we recommend scaling up mental health care in schools. Getting out of a two-year trauma requires significant resources, including support animals and compassionate leadership from school counselors. This would be to minimize the long-term effects on students’ mental and physical health.
The toolkit aims to help anyone who needs to make important fact-based decisions in schools, be it teachers, mentors, school administrators, school policy makers. It is intended to give people a framework within which to make complex decisions. As physicians and scientists, our goal is to inform people with accurate data and to contextualize it and provide guidance, not to tell people what to do. We hope that people will use this information and bring it to their own communities and share it with others as we navigate this complex time together.