Jason Kahn, PhD
Co-founder & Chief Scientific Officer
COVID-19 has left in its wake another health catastrophe, the mental health of millions of kids coping with the uncertainty of their routine coupled with the loss from being cut off from their social circles. Pediatric providers are reporting an increase in mental health referrals. My own son has joined the statistics: increased crying, a short temper, and frequent withdrawing have grown out of a slight shyness that was once a footnote to a previously easy-going and silly personality.
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Unlike with the physical toll of COVID-19, the medicine for ameliorating the mental health toll of COVID-19 is well understood. We need to reopen schools. This does not mean that we need to jump to a 100% in-person schooling. But as we build plans for reopening society, we do need to prioritize our kids mental health with parity to physical health. We need to look at the risks and costs with the same lens, and build plans that allow the millions of kids who have developed risk factors for mental illness to bend back toward a track of healthy child development, or the costs of the pandemic will last generations.
- Stop framing reopening as all or nothing. Much has been discussed on the economic needs of school reopening. However, schools are not day care and framing them as such trivializes the work that our school staff takes on every day. Prioritizing a complete picture of child health means that hybrid models are an essential bridge. We shouldn’t trivialize the problems brought on without more support for working parents, but by the same token we shouldn’t ask our schools to bear that burden alone.
- Prioritize peer interactions. So much of our curriculum is built around peers not just learning from the teacher, but from each other. This joint exploration has expressions on the playground at kindergarten, as kids learn how to navigate each other’s ideas and feelings and in high school, as lab partners can ask each other questions and help push each other to find value in their work. Deepening these relationships requires some in-person time.
- De-prioritize academics. It’s easy to forget that attention, social relatedness, and emotional regulation are skills. Every kid starts in different places, but no matter what, all kids can foster those skills and see progress on an individual level. During the pandemic, these skills have atrophied. As we return to school, we shouldn’t be talking about reading and math, at least not directly. We need to recognize the skills that make kids ready to learn.
By opening up the discussion and bringing kid mental health to parity with physical health, we can move school reopening beyond the all-or-nothing framing and move forward with a response that addresses a major but little-discussed cost of the pandemic: child mental health. If we cannot move forward, the cost of this pandemic will not be measured in years, but in generations.