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With School Buildings Closed, Children's Mental Health Is Suffering


Are kids going back to school in the fall? In some places, maybe; others, it's not clear. The question has become a major political issue. President Trump says this.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think they should open the schools, absolutely. I think they should. And it's had very little impact on young people.

MARTIN: His comments were a direct response to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the NIH who was cautious about reopening schools this fall when he testified before a Senate panel earlier this week.


ANTHONY FAUCI: We don't know everything about this virus, and we really better be very careful, particularly when it comes to children.

MARTIN: One of the nation's most prominent pediatricians has now weighed in on this question. He says keeping schools closed for too long would be a grave mistake. Here's NPR's Anya Kamenetz.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Nightmares, anxiety, tantrums, regression, even suicidal thoughts - children across the country have been struggling with the loss of their friends, their teachers and their routines under lockdown. Sarah lives in Northern California. Recently, she told her 5-year-old daughter Phoebe that it wasn't safe to take her on an errand to the post office.

SARAH: I told her, no. And she's like, why? She's like, I don't care if I die.

KAMENETZ: Sarah - we're not using her last name to protect her daughter's privacy - has been alarmed enough by statements like these that she's seeking out a therapist for Phoebe. Though it's been difficult to find one who can treat children over video chat.

SARAH: She's definitely not in the best state of mind right now.

KAMENETZ: Dr. Dimitri Christakis is the editor in chief of the Pediatrics Journal of the American Medical Association. And he says the serious effects of this crisis on children like 5-year-old Phoebe have been overlooked.

DIMITRI CHRISTAKIS: The decision to sort of close schools initially and now to potentially keep them closed isn't, I think, taking the full measure of the impact this is going to have on children, not just the short term but the long term.

KAMENETZ: The problem, Dr. Christakis says, isn't just learning loss, which is expected to fall particularly hard on low-income children with unequal access to distance learning. A study in his journal also documents a downturn in children's mental health under lockdown in China.

CHRISTAKIS: The social-emotional needs of children to connect with other children in real time and space, whether it's for physical activity, unstructured play or structured play, this is immensely important for young children in particular.

KAMENETZ: In his new editorial in JAMA Pediatrics, Dr. Christakis calls for an interdisciplinary expert panel to make school reopening a priority here in the United States.

CHRISTAKIS: I think we should sort of reason backwards from the expectation that children do start school, that that's an imperative. And then how do we make that happen safely?

KAMENETZ: Safety, of course, is the reason schools closed around the world in the first place. It's still considered very rare for children to become seriously ill from coronavirus, but recently there have been a handful of children who died of an apparently COVID-related inflammatory illness. The more commonly discussed risk is children infecting others - their teachers, parents and grandparents. A new paper in Science co-authored by Maria Litvinova suggests that children are less likely to catch the disease but because they have so much close contact at school, canceling in-person classes plays a key role in flattening the curve. Litvinova says she's doubtful that schools can really enforce social distancing.

MARIA LITVINOVA: It's very difficult to explain to children that they shouldn't stay with their friends or talk with them or be close to each other.

KAMENETZ: Dr. Christakis is himself an epidemiologist by training, but he says that's exactly why experts from different backgrounds need to be consulted, so that the risks of reopening schools can be properly balanced with the risks of keeping them closed.

Anya Kamenetz, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.