Harvard professor: More school closures could exacerbate 'full-on child mental health crisis'

Media top headlines December 21

In media news today, a Manchin confidant says the Biden White House’s incivility was the last straw on Build Back Better, Jen Psaki suggests Biden won’t answer questions after Tuesday’s COVID speech, and the White House gets ripped for doomsday winter message of ‘sever illness and death’ for the unvaccinated.

A Harvard health professor warned that renewed school closures will have adverse effects on kids’ education, physical wellbeing and mental health in a guest essay for the New York Times.

A return to virtual learning in the midst of the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19, would simply be repeating past mistakes, Joseph G. Allen, an associate professor and director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, argued.

“The harms to kids from being out of school, on the other hand, are severe,” Allen wrote. “They are accumulating. And they could last for decades.”

Harvard Professor Joseph G. Allen feels masks work, but aren’t necessary for kids. 
( Allison Dinner/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Allen’s first point, which comes with the most direct evidence, is that students’ grades tanked in key areas last year. McKinsey research examining COVID-19 effects on the 2020-21 school year found the pandemic left students five months behind on math and four months behind in reading. Schools with largely minority populations fared worse, with students falling six months behind in math and five to six months behind in reading. 

A person has a nasal swab applied for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) test taken at a mobile testing site in New York, U.S., December 3, 2021. 
(REUTERS/Jeenah Moon)

But Allen said learning loss was just the start to the troubles caused by at-home learning. Studies on COVID have consistently shown low hospitalization rates for children, yet their health has been impacted in a number of other ways and could even worsen if administrators revisit remote education, Allen argued.

“We have a full-on child mental health crisis on our hands,” he wrote. “The proportion of pediatric hospital visits for mental health reasons increased significantly in 2020 as the pandemic hit and schools closed, and the trend only worsened as 2020 wore on.”

Those negative effects, he said, can include increased anxiety and a decrease in reports on at-home abuse.

A "closed" sign in front of a public elementary school in Grand Rapids, Michigan in March 2020. Michigan closed all schools in an effort to thwart the spread of the novel coronavirus.

In terms of physical health, Allen predicted more students could be severely impacted by the sudden loss of school meals. To help avoid school closures this time around, Allen argued for more child vaccinations and vaccine mandates for adults in schools.

Some of Allen’s fellow educators chimed in to agree with him that school closings will do more harm than good.

Emails discovered in October revealed that the nation’s most powerful teachers unions had influenced the Centers for Disease Control’s school reopening plans. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association received a copy of guidance before the CDC released it to public and afterward advised the CDC to rewrite parts of it.

For instance, the unions implored the agency to add the line, “In the event high-community transmission results from a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, a new update of these guidelines may be necessary,” which may have led to a delay in the return to classrooms.


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