By Simon F. Haeder and Kelli Caseman
The coronavirus has changed the world as we know it. In the span of just a few weeks, we’re seeing and doing things much differently. Rightfully so, because for the most vulnerable among us, their lives depend upon it. Yet in the middle of this chaos, there has only been a limited focus on perhaps the most vulnerable group among us: children.
From a medical perspective, the effect of the pandemic appears mixed. We know that children aren’t immune to the coronavirus, but they’re also not the most at-risk demographic.
In a recent study of early cases in China, fewer than 1 percent of all infections were children under the age of 10. However, newer research shows that babies and toddlers appear to be at higher risk of developing more severe symptoms than older children. Kids with preexisting medical conditions are also more vulnerable, but by all counts, this isn’t like the H1N1 virus– this isn’t considered a children’s disease.
Yet the threat to children goes well beyond falling sick from the virus. This pandemic has real consequences for many of Pennsylvania’s kids. Some of these are immediate.
For children living in poverty, or with substance-using parents or guardians, isolation in stressful, sometimes unsafe environments can be dangerous. Early indicators from around the world show significant increases in domestic and child abuse as families are forced to stay home.
We know that school plays a critical role in establishing a place of stability for these kids. Moreover, teachers often serve as the one stable adult in children’s lives. Perhaps no less important are the roles teachers play in spotting early signs of abuse. Now, many children have lost that security.
Similarly, one in five children struggle with food insecurity; school meals kept them fed. Some counties are already struggling to maintain their student feeding programs.
As more of us in the community contract the virus, keeping these programs running will be an increasing challenge. As school food supplies dwindle, and counties consider meal deliveries once or twice a week, kids lose yet another visual contact with supportive adult role models. While that may not seem like much to us, it’s an important piece of their sense of security during this crisis.
Schools also serve as an important healthcare access point for students. Indeed, school-based health centers provide important services to many students ranging from vaccinations to telemedicine and mental health services.
They play a particularly important role in providing healthcare services in one of the nation’s hardest hit cities, Philadelphia. Many of these have closed with the schools. And while community clinics and hospitals continue to stay open, transportation may prove challenging for many children.
Of course, we’ll also need to keep track of children who are living with grandparents. The number of children in these living arrangements has increase dramatically as a result of the opioid epidemic.
Yet while these living arrangements come with challenges even in good times, they are even less ideal in the midst of a pandemic. Imagine if we lose track of these families, and the children are left to care for elderly family members. Will they know what to do? Who to call, if they need help?
Yet while our focus should be on the immediate needs of children, we should not lose sight of the bigger picture.
For all kids, the pandemic will be an adverse childhood experience and may present lasting mental health challenges. Their daily routines will be disrupted for months to come. They may lose loved ones and friends. And for many, the recent experiences will come on top of the impact of the opioid epidemic.
Yet other impacts will be much more disparate. We already know that parents and their educational and socio-economic status exert disproportionate influence on the academic development of children.
With education moving digitally, unquestionably, these discrepancies will be much amplified. Large parts of the state have no or only limited access to the Internet. Many parents will not be able to supervise their children, let alone provide them with the educational attention necessary.
The pandemic might prove particularly detrimental for states youngest. There is evidence that children’s earliest years are particularly important for their educational and socio-emotional development. With daycare centers also shut down, many children will lack exposure to important formational experiences.
Many children will also live in homes with family members who will experience job losses. Not only do these situations pose significant financial challenges for families, but they are also tremendously stressful, often leading to decreases in health status and increases of domestic incidents. West Virginia also faced a challenging labor market before the pandemic.
With the whole country on the precipice of a steep economic recession, there may be little light at the end of the tunnel.
Just a few weeks ago, we lived in a very different world. To be sure, Pennsylvania confronted a number of challenging issues like the ongoing opioid epidemic, transitioning our economy into the 21st century, improving K-12 education, and state pensions. None of these things have changed just because the entire world seems to be moving towards indefinite quarantine. We can’t forget or ignore our pre-existing crises in lieu of a more immediate problem.
At a time when we were working to connect families and children to more community services, we’re forcing them to stay home.
At a time when we were encouraging families and children to access community-based mental health services, we’re telling families to keep them out of the health care setting.
At a time when we were telling kids to tell a trusted adult about any abuse they may be experiencing at home, they now have almost no capacity to access help.
For now, we need to make sure that the most immediate needs of children, safe homes and access to food and healthcare, are met. This particularly applies to those who we know are the most vulnerable among us.
Yet even in this most difficult time, we should look ahead and start the difficult conversations with stakeholders, from a safe distance, about how we plan to make about for lost time.
Many kids are currently out of sight; let’s not keep them out of mind.
Capital-Star Opinion contributor Simon F. Haeder is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy in the School of Public Policy at Penn State University. Kelli Caseman is the executive director of Think Kids, a West Virginia-based nonprofit organization. Together, they work on a research project studying the efficacy of school-based health centers in Appalachia for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Interdisciplinary Leadership Program.