Following the shutdown of schools in the first year of the pandemic, students are struggling to catch up. The crisis has had the most intense impact on Black, Hispanic, and students attending schools with high poverty rates. Commenting on the crisis, Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank, said the U.S hadn’t experienced “this kind of academic achievement crisis in living memory.”
Petrilli’s statements about the academic crisis add to other worrying data that points to children starting the year in peril. According to a declaration by the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association, children and teens are experiencing concerning levels of mental health issues substantiated by the “dramatic increases in emergency department visits for all mental health emergencies.”
This data led the groups to declare a national state of emergency in child and adolescent mental health.
Yet, the AAP-AACAP-CHA declaration isn’t the only data point that suggests U.S. children are experiencing an unprecedented mental health crisis. The CDC reported that suicide attempts in adolescents have increased. The data reveals that the rise is primarily among adolescent girls, as suspected suicide E.R. visits among girls aged 12 to 17 increased by 51% from early 2019 to early 2021.
Children have also become casualties in the nationwide rise in crime, as gun violence toward minors has increased. In 2021, 101 Chicago residents under the age of 20 were murdered, a 33% increase from 2019. The Washington Post also reported that school shootings had increased to 42, the most on record.
Unfortunately, since many schools are yet to return to normal, learning loss and isolation will continue to worsen, which could see an upward trend in many of the aforementioned statistics.
Now that previously standard elements of school life –– bus schedules, parent-teacher conferences, extracurricular activities, assemblies, lunchtimes, and school trips –– have either been transformed or eliminated, the mental health crisis children are enduring could deepen.
The crisis –– started because of the COVID pandemic –– only worsens as many COVID measures aimed at schools prevent children from returning to normal. In the spring of 2020, the steps to shut down most of society to curb an unknown virus from spreading were understandable. However, two years on, implementing these actions now seems exaggerated.
Instead, what data is pointing to is that changes to school routines are debatable, often being more detrimental to children than COVID itself. Some researchers have also voiced their skepticism that school closures –– and precautions like separating children during lunchtime –– reduce Covid cases.
In terms of harm, severe illness from Covid is rare in children, as the illness mostly resembles the flu. But what children are at more risk of developing is mental health problems that could prove deadly if suicide attempts continue to rise.
Given the availability of vaccines, we also face a moral predicament: children suffering to protect unvaccinated adults –– many of whom have chosen to face the risk posed to them if they remain unvaccinated. But instead of placing the onus on adults, the U.S. current strategy seems to suggest that children’s mental health is an okay trade-off to protect willfully unvaccinated adults.
Yes, deciding which trade-offs to make as we battle a pandemic is challenging, and having children return to normal life could be risky.
However, if communities accept a children-in-crisis model to manage the pandemic rather than placing the liability on adults, finding an acceptable trade-off could be impossible.