As time has gone on, evidence has grown on one side of the equation: the harm being done to children by restricting their “circulation.” There is the well-documented fall-off in student academic performance at schools that have shifted to virtual learning, which, copious evidence now shows, is exacerbating racial and class divides in achievement. This toll has led a growing number of epidemiologists, pediatricians and other physicians to argue for reopening schools as broadly as possible, amid growing evidence that schools are not major venues for transmission of the virus.
As many of these experts have noted, the cost of restrictions on youth has gone beyond academics. The CDC found that the proportion of visits to the emergency room by adolescents between ages 12 and 17 that were mental-health-related increased 31% during the span of March to October 2020, compared with the same months in 2019. A study in the March 2021 issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, of people aged 11 to 21 visiting emergency rooms found “significantly higher” rates of “suicidal ideation” during the first half of 2020 (compared to 2019), as well as higher rates of suicide attempts, though the actual number of suicides remained flat.
Doctors are concerned about possible increases in childhood obesity — no surprise with many kids housebound in stress-filled homes — while addiction experts are warning of the long-term effects of endless hours of screen time when both schoolwork and downtime stimulation are delivered digitally. (Perhaps the only indicator of youth distress that is falling — reports of child abuse and neglect, which dropped about 40% early in the pandemic — is nonetheless worrisome because experts suspect it is the reporting that is declining, not the frequency of the abuse.)
Finally, the nationwide surge in gun violence since the start of the pandemic has included, in many cities, a sharp rise in crimes involving juveniles, including many killed or arrested during what would normally be school time. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, a Washington, D.C., suburb where school buildings have remained closed, seven teenagers were charged with murder in just the first five weeks of this year.