Children might not be the main demographic being diagnosed with the coronavirus, but the pandemic is stunting their development and health, experts say.
Daily routines have been disrupted, and many students will continue with distance learning — meaning children aren’t regularly seeing their friends, classmates or teachers.
Pediatricians have already seen a lot of mental health ramifications related to the coronavirus pandemic, said Dr. Mary-Lynn Niland, a pediatrician with Central Ohio Primary Care.
In younger children, this can manifest as behavior problems or temper tantrums, she said, and turn into anxiety and depression in teenagers.
Niland said she has children as young as seven in her office almost daily telling her how much they want to go back to school so they can see their friends.
“The whole thing is heartbreaking,” she said. “This pandemic did not get under control and now our kids are paying the price for it.”
Children are going to regress academically and socially as the coronavirus continues, Niland said.
“We’re going to have kindergarteners that aren’t going to learn how to read or write,” she said. “You’re going to have kids with special education needs that aren’t going to be met.”
Educators in central Ohio and across the country have expressed concerns about the “COVID slide”, a variation of “summer slide,” a term long used to describe the learning loss that students experience over the seasonal break.
Because of the pandemic, many students doing distance learning will be studying alongside parents working from home.
“It is so difficult to expect parents to work full time and be fully present for their job and to also be there to help supervise the online schooling of their children,” Niland said.
And children who need extra help with social skills are not getting as many opportunities to practice since they aren’t interacting with their classmates or peers.
“Social interaction is so nuanced, and you need millions of interactions to practice all those little nuances that are happening,” said Dr. Cody Hostutler, a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
It’s can be especially difficult for some children and families, he said.
“I think that has limited the opportunity to practice and experience some of those things, particularly those kids who don’t have other kids to play with at home and families who don’t have people down the street they can quarantine together with,” Hostutler said.
By having social interactions with other kids, children learn to share, problem solve, handle conflict management, make friends and develop confidence among other things, Niland said.
“Everything that we need to learn to be a functioning human in the world happens through socialization,” she said.
The pandemic has also created other worries. For one, screen time has sky-rocketed during the coronavirus as much of schooling has been shifted online and parents lean on iPads and TVs for babysitting and entertainment as they try to balance working from home and parenting.
According to a survey conducted in April by advocacy group ParentsTogether, children in the United States are spending an average of nearly six hours a day online, 50% more than before the coronavirus crisis.
“We preach that kids shouldn’t be in front of a screen all day,” Niland said. “The screen time is out of control.”
Liz Magee’s three children miss their friends, forcing them to turn to technology on their electronic devices to stay connected.
Her children — ages 11, 14 and 16 — returned to the Bexley School District for the fall semester with online classes that started on Monday.
“What they need is community,” said Magee. “They need community with their friends and their teachers and their peers and that just can’t be replicated in the home.”
On the flip side, there is also much concern for how children who don’t have access to technology or the internet are going to navigate distance learning, said Tracy Nájera, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund of Ohio.
“Where many of us are living … we can work remotely. Our kids can have distance learning,” she said. “Then we have other regions of the state where none of this is even a possibility.”
In Ohio, it’s estimated that 1 million people lack reliable internet connection, and 300,000 households have no internet options.
The constant change of routines throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has also been challenging for children who crave structure, Niland said.
“Families are in chaos,” she said. “The sleep schedule is messed up. … Very few kids are routinely brushing their teeth.”
Bodies run on a rhythm, alerting people when it’s time to eat and sleep.
“When things get knocked out of that rhythm it can be pretty upsetting to kids,” Hostutler said.
With all the changes and uncertainties that have been brought on by the coronavirus, it’s important to give ourselves grace, Najera said.
“We need to be patient with our teachers,” she said. “Patient with ourselves. Patient with our students and just remember we are all doing the best we can.