Seniors are at highest risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 infection, but children may suffer effects from the pandemic over an entire lifetime.
The direct impact of COVID-19 on children is usually asymptomatic or mild infection with only rare hospitalization or ICU admission. But, the impact of school closures, economic shutdowns and social disruption on the health and well-being of children are substantial and may be long-lasting.
School closures have had a big impact on children and their families. The switch to on-line learning likely affected school performance, particularly for children who may not have had access to computers, internet connections or parents able to support home learning.
Some educational experts predict a “COVID-slide” of up to 50 per cent in mathematics and 30 per cent in reading skills from grade level by the time children return to school in the fall.
They also warn of an increase in high school dropouts if teenagers are not engaged by distance-learning opportunities. These losses can affect lifetime earning potential and economic productivity for today’s children.
Schools are not only places where children receive education but also where many children receive nutritious meals, have a safe place to play outside and receive key public health services such as immunizations, dental care and mental health services.
Optimal childhood development requires social interaction, play and physical activity particularly in the early childhood years. Daycare and pre-school closures during the early months of the pandemic limited access to early childhood education for many children.
The economic slowdown and job losses have increased the risk of childhood poverty, food insecurity and precarious housing. Driven by isolation, anxiety and a higher risk of witnessing or experiencing abuse in the home, children have also been turning to helplines and counselling services for help in higher numbers since the onset of the pandemic.
Given the overwhelming benefits of school for children’s short-term and long-term well-being, the Alberta government has announced its plan to re-open schools this fall for classroom learning. I applaud the province for recognizing the needs of children during the pandemic and the importance of school in their development and success as adults.
Alberta Health has provided safety guidelines and school divisions are developing protocols to comply with physical distancing, enhanced cleaning and masking to keep students, staff and the community safe. There are robust plans in place to test, isolate and trace contacts should outbreaks occur at school. Some school divisions are also offering at-home learning options that may be appropriate for children with serious underlying medical conditions.
As parents, educators and community members, we can all support a safe return to school. Parents can continue to reinforce proper hand hygiene, physical distancing and mask use with their children and keep them at home when sick. Educators can follow the guidelines for COVID-19 safety set out by public health agencies and reinstate vital services that children receive through schools such as mental health support.
They can ensure that children who were disadvantaged during home learning are given the extra support they need to catch up to grade level. Community members have to do their part in keeping schools open by following measures to keep infection rates low.
Governments have the responsibility to make sure that children do not fall into poverty as a result of parents losing jobs or income. Guaranteed income support will ensure that children have access to nutritious food, safe housing and resources for learning.
Governments also need to bridge the digital divide by providing access to affordable, high-speed internet services for children, particularly those living on Indigenous reserves and in other rural and remote areas. Governments need to restore supports for special needs and disabled children both in the home and in schools to full capacity and have contingency plans to avoid disruption if there is a second wave of COVID-19 infections.
COVID-19 threatens to leave a scar on a whole generation of children unless we recognize their unique needs and make sure that we balance our economic, social and health priorities with children in mind. We all have a part to play in making sure that this generation of children has every opportunity to reach their full potential.
We know that it takes a village to raise a child.
Vamini Selvanandan is a family physician and public health practitioner in Alberta.