The pandemic and shuttered schools have led to a crisis for childhood

WASHINGTON — As parents remain bitterly divided over the return of in-person classroom instruction, children faced a greater risk of abuse or neglect because their contact with the outside world has been significantly curtailed by school closures and other restrictive measures. Those are the findings of two separate studies published on Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The studies — along with other recent findings about learning outcomes, food insecurity and mental health — paint a grim picture of childhood development in the midst of a pandemic, leading UNICEF, the United Nations childhood agency, to warn of “a lost COVID generation” in a recent report.

Researchers blamed the increased risk of child abuse on factors including “heightened stress, school closures, loss of income, and social isolation.” They also suggested that “strengthening families’ economic supports” could help ease contributing stressors.

Congress is currently locked in negotiations to pass a new coronavirus relief package. The White House stepped in earlier this week, endorsing $600 stimulus checks over new unemployment benefits. Stimulus checks, of course, cannot alone compensate for the social and familial disruptions caused by the coronavirus, which has also devastated the mental health of adults, leading millions to experience anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. Drug and alcohol use have also increased.

Sadly, children appear to be bearing the brunt of those adverse adult outcomes.

child in distress
Carol Yepes/Moment Rf/Getty Images

To understand the scope of the abuse crisis, CDC researchers looked at how many people visited emergency rooms in 2020, how many of those people were children under the age of 18 who had been abused or neglected, and how many of those children then required hospitalization because their injuries were so severe. The reporting was culled from 3,310 emergency departments in 47 states and Washington, D.C., which together accounted for about three-fourths of all emergency room trips taken during the pandemic.

The total number of people going to the emergency room fell during the pandemic relative to 2019 visits. So did the number abused or neglected children visiting an emergency room, though that decrease was not as pronounced. But because the number of children who had been abused or neglected and then required hospitalization stayed the same, their share in the broader emergency-room-visit population “increased significantly.”

It is all but certain that many abused children are not receiving the care and attention they need, the studies conclude. The researchers describe “preliminary reports of increased severity of child abuse and neglect,” citing a June study by doctors from the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. Researchers there found a rise in “abusive head trauma” but, just as troublingly, noted that such trauma was “likely under-represented due to public avoidance of hospitals.”

With schools closed in much of the country, there are now fewer people, such as teachers and administrators, to spot signs of abuse. A study published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect earlier this fall concluded that “school closures and other public health responses have decreased the extent that children interact with mandated reporters and other professionals trained to detect child maltreatment.”

The CDC bolstered that conclusion, finding that reporting of child abuse may have dropped by as much as 70 percent because of “decreased in-person contact between children and mandated reporters” such as teachers and social workers.

Remote learning does appear to contribute to these concerning developments, most directly by keeping children at home. To make matters worse, children in historically neglected communities are most likely to have insufficient access to remote learning, further distancing them from teachers who may spot something amiss. Some 3 million children are estimated to have simply not gone to school since schools across the nation shuttered in March, according to an October report released by researchers at Bellwether Education Partners.

“Schools are the first line of defense,” says Rep.-elect Jamaal Bowman, a former middle school principal from the Bronx who was elected to the House of Representatives in November. Bowman, a progressive Democrat, told Yahoo News that he believes that that must remain the case whether schools conduct classes over computer screen or in class.

In addition to fulfilling their core educational missions, Bowman says, schools need to be making sure students aren’t hungry or undergoing acute emotional distress because of factors like social isolation or abusive home situations. That has always been a challenge, especially in larger districts: Bowman recalls telling district supervisors that he was concerned about students showing suicidal tendencies, only to be met by a “flippant, joking response.”

Since June, the Trump administration has pushed for schools to reopen but has not given educators the billions of dollars they say they need to make schools across the country safe for the resumption of in-person instruction.

Speaking to Fox News earlier this week, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said it was “tragic” to see schools closed.

Although study and after study has found that it is safe to return children to school, particularly at the elementary level, parents remain divided along racial lines about whether to send children back to the classroom, according to another study released by the CDC on Thursday. That study looked at the attitudes of 858 parents of school-age children. It found that 56.5 percent agreed either strongly or somewhat that students should return to the classroom, an opinion that is in keeping with that of most public health professionals.

The study was conducted in July, when there was a coronavirus surge in the Sun Belt, but before the virus returned in earnest across other parts of the nation, leading to record daily deaths and infections. Although studies have shown that schools do not appear to be sites of significant viral transmission, rampant community spread complicates the matter. That heightened risk militates for continued remote instruction, argues Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University who previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner.

“We should all see this as our COVID year,” Wen told Yahoo News.

Parents are divided on the willingness to make that concession, even as frustrations with remote learning appear to be mounting. “It’s time to admit it: Remote education is a failure,” went the headline of a widely shared recent op-ed by Washington Post columnist Helaine Olen.

“I would love to see schools open, but only if they have the resources to open safely,” says New York University education historian Diane Ravitch, who tends to be affiliated with progressive causes and with teachers’ unions, which have fought to keep schools closed in many parts of the country.

“I have two grandchildren in school now,” Ravitch told Yahoo News. “They are very bored by remote instruction and long to be back in school with friends and teachers.”

White parents were the most supportive of returning to the classroom (62.3 percent), the CDC found, while African American parents were the least (46 percent). Half of Hispanic parents supported sending children back into schools. And while white parents were most eager to return to in-person instruction, they were also the group least in favor of mask mandates for both children and teachers (62.5 percent). Such mandates could keep the coronavirus from spreading in schools.

Researchers noted that “fear of poor health outcomes” could be leading some parents to opt for remote learning. A legacy of racism and institutional neglect has also fostered mistrust of government authorities in some sectors of society.

The racial subtext of school reopenings came to the surface earlier this month, when the Chicago Teachers Union tweeted that the “push to reopen schools is rooted in sexism, racism and misogyny.” The tweet was quickly deleted amid harsh criticism. Chicago’s classrooms remain closed for in-person instruction, with the union challenging a plan to bring students back next month.


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