How the Closure of In-School Learning Damaged U.S. Children’s Mental Health During the Pandemic

Nobody ever believed the pandemic would go easy on children. The virus might target them less directly than it targets older people, but other challenges—the loss of school, the loss of play, the loss of time with friends—would exact their own emotional toll. A study published April 29 in JAMA Network Open sheds light on how serious that harm has been.

The work, led by psychologist Tali Raviv at Northwestern University, involved a survey of more than 32,000 caregivers looking after children from kindergarten to grade 12 in the Chicago public school system. The definition of “caregiver” was broad, including parents and grandparents as well as anyone 18 or older with principal responsibility of caring for children in a household. The sample group of the families was ethnically and racially diverse—39.3% white, 30.2% Latinx; 22.4% Black; and 8.1% mixed.

The pivot point of the research was March 21, 2020: the day that in-person instruction ended in Chicago public schools and home-schooling began. Raviv and her colleagues asked each caregiver to rate the children they were looking after on how they exhibited 12 different traits in the time before the end-of-school date, and in the time after (the surveys themselves were filled out between June 24 and July 15):

The results were striking. On every one of the negative traits the overall scores went up, and on every one of the positive ones, there was a decline. Some were comparatively small shifts: Talking about plans for the future fell from 44.3% to 30.9% (a change of 13.4 percentage points); positive peer relationships declined from 60.4% to 46.8% (a 13.6 percentage-point drop). But in other cases the change was more dramatic. Just 3.6% of kids overall were reported to exhibit signs of being lonely before the schools were shuttered and 31.9% were that way after, a massive shift of 28.3 percentage points. Only 4.2% of children were labeled agitated or angry before the closures, compared to 23.9% after, a jump of 19.7 points.

A small number of the children studied, Raviv says, improved over the before-and-after period. “About 7% actually benefited” from the shift to in-person learning, she says. Self-harm and suicidal ideation, for example, declined from 0.5% to 0.4% among Black children, and from 0.4% to 0.3% among Latinx kids. “Maybe school was a stressful place and remote learning was good for them.”

But that’s not at all the case for most kids and, as with so many things, race, ethnicity and income play a role, though in this case it was Black and Latinx children generally faring better than whites, instead of the other way around.

Overall, the figure for the “loneliness” characteristic was 31.9% post-school closures, but it broke down to 22.9% among Black kids and 17.9% among Latinx, compared to 48.4% among whites. Since all three groups clocked in at just over 3% before in-class learning ended, the resulting increase in loneliness was much higher among whites. On the “hopeful or positive” metric, 36.4% Black kids exhibited the traits, compared to 30.7% in Latinx households and just 24.6% among whites—a decline in all three cases, but a more precipitous one among whites who were down from 55.7%, compared to 40.2% for Latinx kids and 49.8% for Blacks.

The explanation, Raviv suspects, could be that the greater level of privilege whites generally experience left them less prepared to deal with the hardships of the lockdowns when they came around.”It may have been more unusual for white families to have to cut back,” she says. “For some lower-income people it might not have been that much of a change.”

But Black and Latinx families suffered in other ways. Across the board, they were more likely to have a family member who contracted COVID-19; to have lost a job, lost a home, lost health insurance; to have difficulty getting medicine, health care, food, and PPE. Even if the Black and Latinx children’s change in overall mental health as tabulated in the study was less severe than that of white kids’, they experienced hardship all the same. “They were more likely to see these additional stressors,” says Raviv.

Going forward, Raviv and her colleagues write that the pandemic can be something of a teachable moment for educators, clinicians, and policymakers. The research, they say, points to the need for a renewed commitment to better mental health care—especially access to telehealth; improved access to school- and community-based mental health services; improved funding for communities in need; and a better effort to eliminate structural inequality. The pandemic, eventually, will end. The emotional pain kids in every ethnic group have sustained could stay with them for a long time to come.

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Contributor: Jeffrey Kluger