School’s In Session and In Person. Are Our Children Safe?

By Lance Chilton

In an email message many of us received this last week, Governor Michelle Luján Grisham wrote: “It was a top priority of mine to get students back at their desks–and your commitment to social distancing, masking and encouraging your communities to get vaccinated has helped our state get to a point where it’s safe to return to in-person instruction as we continue to respond to the pandemic.”

But are they safe? The answer, of course, is not a black-or-white yes or no. Is it safe to drive on a busy highway? Not 100%. Accidents happen. Is it safer to sit on the couch or ride a bike on Albuquerque streets?  We put on our seatbelts and drive carefully; we wear bike helmets and stay in the bike lanes.

We all balance risks in trying to choose what’s best for ourselves and for our children. This week and next, I’’ll be writing about the dangers of the coronavirus to children: first about the dangers of continued isolation of children and of non-in-person education and then about the physical effects and dangers of coronavirus infection in children.  Here’s a spoiler alert: I will conclude that there are possible dangers to children both in going back to school and in remaining in lockdown and that the Governor has, in my opinion and that of the American Academy of Pediatrics, decided that the dangers of going back to school are outweighed by the dangers of staying in lockdown, as long as appropriate safety measures are taken.

The last 521 days and counting have seen the majority of children–in New Mexico as in most of the United States and around the world–confined to quarters by the pandemic. Most schooling has been accomplished through the Internet.  At least that’s true for children with a device and a connection. Privileged children almost universally have had both a computer screen and an Internet connection, while children living in isolated areas and in resource-poor communities often lack either or both and have suffered disproportionately.

There is no doubt that the education of children has suffered during the pandemic, despite the best efforts of teachers, school districts, state and national governments. How do you keep a kindergartener interested in what’s happening on a screen in front of her when family members are also zooming about the house, either on a screen or on a skateboard? That’s difficult too for elementary and secondary school students. Will children be able to make up for a lost year, or will a knowledge deficiency persist through life? We don’t know, but we worry.

Required confinement of children has had other ill effects. Nationally, child maltreatment has increased; parents and children cooped up together for months have been at times at one another’s throats, sometimes literally. Gun sales, suicides, and homicides are up–might there be a connection there?  Just last week a child brought a gun to a just-reopened Albuquerque middle school and shot another child on the playground. Was that yet another ill effect of the previous year’s confinement?

At a very recent New Mexico Pediatric Society educational meeting, a speaker asked pediatricians in the audience to raise their hands if they were seeing an increase in depression and anxiety in their patients. Every hand went up. The speaker, Dr. Cora Breuner from Seattle, went on to say that national statistics indicate depression, anxiety, and eating disorders have all become more common during the pandemic. And these trends were even more pronounced among minority group children and adolescents.

Yes, there are risks to going back to school. But the risks of staying home appear to be higher. So fasten those seatbelts and bike helmets; put on those masks. Get vaccines for all children and adults for whom they’re available (nearly everyone 12 and older) and be among the first to get the vaccines for your younger children when they’re approved for that purpose.