(Bloomberg Opinion) – It was 9 a.m. on a Wednesday when I got a call from the nurse at my six-year-old’s school. He would come to his office and go to bed. The nurse did not report any temperature and that he was “alert, three times”. His teacher said he had sounded baffled and not his usual self earlier in the morning. When my son – who is not normally a sleeping child and who stopped napping much sooner than I would have liked – called me after waking up, he said, “I was just exhausted.
It’s not hard to see why. He has been absent from the classroom for almost eight months due to mandatory closures in Hong Kong due to Covid-19. Much of what he’s learned has been thanks to Zoom, punctuated by returns to school that end whenever the city judges its infection rate to be too high. The kids need their routines and the constant disruption has been very stressful. Humans typically encounter stress with pounding hearts and a fight or flight response. Many respond with another coping mechanism: simply falling asleep.
The pandemic is testing us all with volatile, uncertain and complex times, a condition familiar to soldiers and firefighters. Our children go through it too. The adults in the room are worried about their own mental health, work and financial security, avoiding the virus that rages around us. This ambient stress is absorbed by our youngest. And preventing them from going to school makes the situation worse.
A psychologist said to me, “We will ask ourselves in a few years why some children do not have these emotional and social skills?” We already have the answers. The Covid-19 era has lasted long enough for multiple studies to be conducted on the impact on families and children. One thing they show is that social isolation and deprivation worsens the emotional well-being of young children and adolescents. The impact will be long-lasting and will accentuate divisions in society. Test scores decrease because students have more difficulty concentrating.
Another thing is that there is no conclusive causal relationship between classrooms and increasing infection rates. Schools reopened this fall for a few weeks, with no major outbreaks, although officials are on alert for an increase in the usual seasonal colds. And yet, we are now in our third cycle of Zoom Home Learning for ages 7-8. Classroom closures are extended to older students on Wednesday and follow the closure of bars, nightclubs and public baths to pack a “fourth wave”. (Hong Kong’s infection figures for the year were low, around 5,700 cases for a population of 7 million). Much of the latest outbreak is due to a group of dance club followers, many of whom are in their golden years. Or, as another six-year-old told me, because “the ugly grannies went dancing”. Read about: Anger grows over erratic Covid rules in Hong Kong as JumpCredit cases to schools to make the most of it. I know teachers and caregivers are at risk, although evidence suggests it’s not that simple. But start-stop locks make it difficult for children to transition from online to offline and back. Class habits and independence suffered. Anecdotally, young children who would usually start reading around this age are unable to take it and lose self-confidence and interest. Research shows that child development “is a hierarchical process of wiring the brain”. The loss of these building blocks hinders future development.
These pressures on children seem to be a bad way to control the virus. Researchers examining studies of school closings to contain outbreaks, including severe acute respiratory syndrome and Covid-19, found very little evidence of their effectiveness. While some suggested the closures worked as part of a general package of social isolation measures, others said the opposite. Closing schools also cuts off access to mental health services.
Closing schools during viral epidemics works best when transmission is higher in children than in adults, unlike the case of Covid-19. A study project in Crepy-en-Valois in France followed the scope of the virus. Results in six elementary schools showed that a total of three children caught it (probably family members) and attended school while they were infected. They did not seem to pass it on to their relatives.
Nearly half of the 1.6 billion primary and secondary school students worldwide will not be returning to school this year, Insights for Education estimates. Over 80% of them live in low income countries. In 52 countries across the economic spectrum, Covid-19 infections have actually increased during school holidays. Policymakers also seem to be forgetting other basic tips for protecting the well-being of children. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization say children between the ages of two and five should get no more than an hour of screen time per day. Few households that can afford a screen would observe such limits in 2020. “We drive with the headlights off and we have kids in the car,” Melinda Buntin, chair of the health policy department at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, says NPR. She advocated for the use of precautions such as wearing masks and changing schedules to keep schools open in the U.S. Although school districts lack the resources to fully equip teachers or bring in supplies. Major changes to facilities, some in-person instruction should be given priority, especially for those with an inability or inability to access distance learning. Read about: Rural America faces long, harsh winter with Covid
History has lessons about how children suffer from traumas like wars and natural disasters. A cratered economy also hurts. A research paper found that during the Great Recession, a 5 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate correlated with a 35% to 50% increase in “clinically significant mental health problems in children.” And frankly, we need to be accountable for the damage caused by stressed parents. I am probably responsible for some of my son’s anxiety.
The day his school heard that the classrooms were closing again, he said he was “sad and crazy”. In a Zoom lesson last week, he misunderstood his teacher, who said they should stretch their legs with a brisk walk. He missed half of his writing lesson. I was on a work call and heard it outside. He was asked why he wasn’t in class, he wasn’t sure, then burst into tears because he had “messed up his schedule.” It is heartbreaking to see and deal with. Memes on Instagram tell me I’m not alone.
Of course, children are resilient. But they are more resilient when they are part of social networks, like parents, grandparents, cousins and friends. They haven’t seen many of these people this year. Yes, there is the silver lining that I spent so much more time – stressed, happy, grateful – with my children. They also saw a lot more of their father, who travels less. As parents, we’ve gone back to basics, focusing on reading, communication, and social and emotional learning – in part because there is no other option. I consider it a victory.
Like millions of other children around the world, all my son wants for Christmas is for the virus to “go away.” I’ll bring him some Magna-Tiles too.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Anjani Trivedi is a Bloomberg opinion columnist covering industrial companies in Asia. She previously worked for the Wall Street Journal.
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