‘The effects will linger’: US kids’ long-term health in jeopardy after pandemic schooling

Before the pandemic, 16-year-old Na’ryen Cayou had everything he needed. He had his own room. A partial scholarship to a boys’ prep school. A spot playing trombone in the marching band, performing in parades all over New Orleans.

Then COVID-19 blew through the Big Easy like a hurricane, washing away nearly everything that helped him feel safe and secure. Schools shut down. His mom lost her job and couldn’t make the rent. Their landlord evicted them.

Na’ryen and his mom now live with his grandmother. His mom sleeps on one couch; he sleeps on the other. He spent half the school year in virtual learning rather than in class with friends. Although he has struggled with math and chemistry, his mother, Nakia Lewis, said there’s no money for a tutor.

“He went through a real deep depression,” said Lewis, 45, a single mother with two older daughters living on their own. “This is nothing anyone could have prepared them for.”

As Americans crowd into restaurants, line up at movie theaters and pack their bags for summer travel, people are understandably eager to put the pandemic behind them. Yet kids like Na’ryen won’t rebound quickly. Some won’t recover at all.

After more than a year of isolation, widespread financial insecurity and the loss of an unprecedented amount of classroom time, experts say many of the youngest Americans have fallen behind socially, academically and emotionally in ways that could harm their physical and mental health for years or even decades.

“This could affect a whole generation for the rest of their lives,” said Dr. Jack Shonkoff, a pediatrician and director of the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University. “All kids will be affected. Some will get through this and be fine. They will learn from it and grow. But lots of kids are going to be in big trouble.”

Many kids will go back to school this fall without having mastered the previous year’s curriculum. Some kids have disappeared from school altogether, and educators worry more students will drop out. Between school closures and reduced instructional time, the average U.S. child has lost the equivalent of five to nine months of learning during the pandemic, according to a report from McKinsey & Company.

Black and Hispanic students — whose parents are more likely to have lost jobs and whose schools were less likely to reopen for in-person instruction — missed six to 12 months of learning, according to the McKinsey report.

Missing educational opportunities doesn’t just deprive kids of better careers; it can also cost them years of life. In study after study, researchers have found people with less education die younger than those with more time in school.

Schools across the country were closed for an average of 54 days in spring 2020, and many provided little to no virtual instruction, said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute. A study he co-authored found the learning kids missed during that time could shorten an elementary school boy’s life by eight months and a girl’s by more than five months.

The total loss of life would be even larger when factoring in the loss of instructional time in the school year that just ended, Christakis said.

“We’ve interrupted children’s education, and it’s going to have a significant impact on their health and longevity,” he said. “The effects will linger a very long time.”

Assaulted on all sides

The double hit from the pandemic, which has impoverished millions of children and deprived them of classroom time, will be too much for some to overcome.

“Living in poverty, even as a child, has health consequences for decades to come,” said Dr. Hilary Seligman, a professor at the University of California-San Francisco. “Children in poverty will have higher risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.”

A growing body of research suggests poverty reshapes the way children’s brains develop, altering both the structure of the brain and the chemicals that transmit signals. These changes can alter how children react to stress and reduce their long-term health and educational achievements.

Chronic stress in children can lead to persistent inflammation that damages the immune system, raises blood sugar and accelerates hardening of the arteries. The heart disease that kills someone in midlife can actually begin in childhood, Shonkoff said.

“What happens to children early on doesn’t just affect early language and school readiness, but the early foundations of lifelong health,” he said.

More kids going hungry

The pandemic has deprived millions of children of school-related services that normally blunt the harm caused by poverty.

From March to May 2020, students missed more than 1.1 billion free or reduced-price meals that would have been provided in school.

Children who experience even occasional “food insecurity” suffer two to four times as many health problems as other kids at the same income level, said Dr. Deborah Frank, director of the Grow Clinic for Children at Boston Medical Center.

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