Prioritize the health of children during the pandemic

Where are the kids? What are they doing? Are they learning anything? My stomach grows heavy, and my throat clogs. Are they eating? Are they safe? Good Lord, I hope that they are safe.

As a pediatrician and as a mother of two, I regularly scan news articles on COVID for data on children. I see stories that commiserate about the elderly’s isolation and burden of illness, the fears and real dangers of all those considered essential workers, the fears and real dangers of those out of work and feeling alone, and stories of parents’ frustration with nonexistent work/home balance. These are all very real and needed pieces. Today in my home state of Connecticut, Governor Lamont declared public schools closed for the academic year. Further complicating the situation, in large communities of Hamden and New Haven, Connecticut, whole school systems have banned online meetings between teachers and students reportedly due to security concerns of online platforms. How does that affect our children: All our children, not just our own?

We know that factors such as poverty and familial stress increase the risk for child abuse. One would, therefore, expect that given our current COVID-19 circumstances, reports of suspected child abuse would have increased greatly. Yet in Connecticut, since the implementation of school closure and stay at home guidelines, referrals to the Department of Children and Families have dropped to roughly 25 percent of their usual number. Teachers no longer have the same eyes on children to be able to monitor their health. Stories come from the families with whom we have the privilege to work. I have talked with mothers of young children who have chosen to reunite with partners who I knew had physically abused them in the past. Where else can these women turn for help? Teenagers and even younger children, when left unattended, become easy targets for online sexual predators and sexual assaults from those close to them. Stories of rape have already surfaced. Families are increasingly being pushed to return to work but without reliable childcare. When no one is able to check on these children, we are deliberately closing our eyes to possible abuse in our neighborhoods.

COVID-19 still has found ways to affect even my “well off” kids. I have a patient in middle school who was previously in all honors classes and had scheduled dance competitions for the spring. Even though her parents, both housecleaners, were able to provide a computer for her, she shares that she feels she only has worksheets to complete as her upper-level classes have been canceled for the school year. Her mother worries that she is up late at night on her phone: very unusual behavior for this young academic all-star. Will she keep her motivation as an online student through middle school? Another mother shares with me in Spanish that her introvert son is actually enjoying not being bullied in fifth grade but that he has assumed the role of the home infection control officer. He demands that family members wash hands repeatedly before touching his baby brother. Will he be able to get over his fear of touching others in order to play basketball again after COVID-19? Other immigrant families were too scared to access food resources such as SNAP or WIC due to the current political environment. Still, other families worried about the risk to themselves by physically going into stores, as required, to use their WIC benefits. Even before COVID-19, 20 percent of children lived with food insecurity. What are these babies eating now?

I realize that the country and world is looking to reopen and hoping for business as usual. I also acknowledge the Herculean efforts already put forth by many already to safeguard the wellbeing of the youngest in our society. Children in our pediatric practice and all around this country have no voices of their own, so I submit this piece — my first writing submission in their honor. I do not suggest that we sacrifice lives of others for the easy path of just reopening schools as they have been. I do though, call for administrators to support teachers’ revised means to connect with all children, for insurance companies to value all efforts of pediatricians to reach all families, and for communities to create their COVID-19 plans with the unique needs of children in the forefront. I challenge our political leaders and our communities to not only plan for the education of children but also to invent and prioritize novel manners to address the emotional and physical needs of all our children. We owe our children more than this. We can do better than this.

Renu Boatright is a pediatrician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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