Every day, when Phyllis Fagell goes into work as a school counselor, she brings a duffel bag big enough to pack up her office – awaiting the day that she and her students must adjust to a world closed down again by Covid-19.
“It has been such a tumultuous few years with so much uncertainty, so much disruption, so much dashed optimism at various points,” said Fagell, who works in Washington, DC. “The students are feeling the same way.”
As of Friday, nearly 3,500 schools across the United States were not offering in-person learning, according to the latest count from data company Burbio. It’s a number that is changing frequently.
Such school closures are affecting children worldwide, according to new research published Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics that looked at children and adolescents from 11 countries, including Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China, Italy, Japan, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The research found kids experienced both mental and physical health problems – anxiety, depression, lower physical activity, food insecurity and school disengagement – linked to school closures and social lockdowns.
“How much of that is the schools being closed versus just the complete social isolation that has been borne by Covid? It’s hard to tell but clearly over time, this is taking a greater toll,” said Dr. David Rubin, director of Population Health Innovation at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who was not involved in the study.
“There’s a lot that goes into the fabric of a school day that builds a community around the child that they’ve not been able to fully take advantage of over the last couple of years,” Rubin said.
The research tracked many studies across the 11 countries, and they detailed severe impacts on all areas of health. Physical activity declined in children by a quarter to a half, according to the study. A US study estimated that two months of schools closing would result in about an 11% rise in childhood obesity.
Fortunately, two studies in England and Japan did not find a significant increase in national suicide rates during lockdowns, but about a quarter of adolescents in Canada and England reported increased depressive symptoms, the research said.
“The toll that school closures and social isolation has had on kid’s mental health cannot be overstated,” said Dr. Danielle Dooley, medical director of Community Affairs and Population Health in the Child Health Advocacy Institute at Children’s National Hospital. Dooley wrote an accompanying editorial that was also published in Pediatrics but was not part of the new research.
“As the latest Omicron wave has shown, these discussions are not behind us. We must continue to fully weigh how each decision can impact the lives of children,” Dooley said.
Losing a safe haven
School has a lot of “developmentally nutritious” things to offer children outside of academic work, said Lisa Damour, an Ohio-based clinical psychologist specializing in the development of teenage girls and author of “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.”
Going into school means connecting with friends and teachers, expanding their thinking and getting out of the house, which Damour said is essential for kids.
It also can mean asking for help, said Sheri Madigan, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of child development at the University of Calgary in Canada.
“For some youth, school is a safe haven for them to reach out to a teacher to say, ‘I’m not doing well’ or reach out to a psychologist who might work there or a principal,” Madigan said.
For many, going back to remote learning means losing those resources, which is especially problematic, as research shows mental distress is increasing in children over the pandemic, Madigan said.
“It’s not just that school is closing, it’s all of the things that come with school that are really critical to children’s mental health,” Madigan said. “Interactions with their peers, access to mental health support, connections with teachers, feeling a sense of community. These are really important ingredients for mental wellbeing.”
For many, the waves of infections means children have been altering the ways they are learning many times throughout the year. That disruption to routine can be difficult to cope with.
“When routines get swept away, not only do we lose all the good activity that was built into the routine. We also lose the mental ease of not having to decide how to spend one’s time,” Damour said.
A sense of predictability and control is key to all of our wellbeing. And for our kids, watching a virus sweep across the world, not knowing if they will see their teacher next week or if they can count on lunch with their friends can lead to high mental distress, according to experts.
Losing ways of learning
There is no getting around it, the disruptions to in-person learning have many children falling behind, said Fagell, author of “Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond–and How Parents Can Help.”
“Whether you are pro-virtual, pro-hybrid, in-person, whatever side you are on, what’s becoming more and more evident is that there are no winners,” Fagell said. “You’ve got instability in-person and you’ve got instability online.”
Part of the difficulty comes from not being able to tailor online learning plans to the different learning styles within a class.
“Some kids do really well with discussion, some kids do really well with writing, other kids don’t,” said Michelle Icard, a parenting educator and author of “Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen: The Essential Conversations You Need to Have With Your Kids Before They Start High School.” “There are so many different types of learners in a classroom, and teachers are well prepared to take a lesson plan, come at it from multiple perspectives and angles in order to reach each different type of learner.”
Interacting with students through a screen makes that a lot harder to do, she added.
For children, skills like paying attention, sitting in a classroom and interacting with one another take practice, Icard said. And when they come back from learning at home, students can often be wild and unruly during the school day.
“They haven’t had enough interaction with each other and with teachers and with the community to kind of polish off the rough edges,” Icard said.
Getting out into the world safely
Now in the third year of the pandemic, families may be worrying about the milestones their children have missed out on, but tending to their social emotional needs first will help kids succeed in other ways over time, Fagell said.
For both the wellbeing and academic performance of your child, experts have suggestions on making the most of being out of the classroom.
“You could try to use it as an opportunity to build some skills with your youth,” Madigan said, suggesting activities like walking, meditation and yoga. “If you have the time and the space for that, that can be really helpful for kids.”
It is also essential to keep kids busy and get them out of the house in safe ways, Damour added.
“Figure out safe ways for them to have playdates, take them to the museum on the weekend, bring friends along, get them outside playing in the snow or playing sports with friends,” she said.
A stable routine can also help mitigate the negative impacts, the experts said.
“The research that is coming out is showing that when we can establish routines, even when kids are at home making sleeping, eating, screen time, physical activity, school time consistent for them that kids tend to be doing better during the pandemic,” Madigan said. “Kids typically thrive on routine and school offers that.”
Family first. Academics second
All of those can be very beneficial to kids, but educators and psychologists alike agreed that building a safe and supportive home environment is the best thing families can do right now.
“It’s not like ‘well, as long as we teach everybody this part of math or how to write a paragraph or how to come up with a thesis statement, we’re going to be good.’ No, that’s secondary,” Fagell said. “We’re only going to be able to even get to that point if we set the stage for their success emotionally.”
Fagell suggested families not put too much pressure on their students to do more work to get to where they might have been academically had there not been a pandemic. Focus instead on building connection and reassuring kids that they are still being taken care of by the adult world.
“Our research is showing that when kids feel connected to their parents during the pandemic, they are reporting better wellbeing,” Madigan said.
If in those moments of connection, families notice signs of depression in their children, which can often look like irritability in teens, Damour recommends seeking guidance from a pediatrician.
Families also need to cut their kids and themselves a break, because building a home where everyone is doing their best emotionally benefits everyone, Damour said.
“Kids very rarely do better than their parents are doing,” she added, stressing that it is a difficult time for everyone and that no one can be expected to keep everything going as it was before.
“The number one thing a parent can do right now isn’t catching them up academically, it is to stay calm and to convey that while things are hard right now, they will get better,” Fagell said. “Help them process what’s happening in the world around them, and be a consistent, loving presence, because that is the number one predictor of resilience.
“If that is all a parent does at a time when they are marinating in stress themselves, they can pat themselves on the back.”