Without a clear, unified path to navigate the pandemic, we are destroying a generation of children while crippling our economy and amplifying the mental health struggles of adults who fight to remain active participants in American society.
Children are adaptable and can bounce back from the repercussions of lockdown and lost education. But irreversible damage is being done, and not every child will recover. In the 2020 – 2021 school year, K-12 enrollment dropped by three percent, or 1.5 million students, in comparison to the prior year. Zooming closer, data from the National Center for Education Statistics illustrates that “the combined number of preschool and kindergarten students decreased by 13 percent last year” and the pre-K population decreased by 22 percent. This indicates “that many families were choosing to keep their young children home longer than expected rather than sign up for virtual learning in the early school years.”
There are now huge numbers of students who have fallen behind, having lost not just classroom education, but also socialization. Robin Lake, the Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, says that these children “haven’t been in normal play situations…They’re coming in having to learn how to engage with other kids appropriately, and so having supports in place to help navigate those realities will be important.” But when, exactly, will we allow children to be given this support? If we continue to have lockdowns, these children will continue to grow older without having ever learned how to socially engage. This is unprecedented.
According to UNICEF, “More than 1 billion children are at risk of falling behind due to school closures aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19.” As of April of 2020, there had been school closures across 188 countries, which is surely higher now.
Technology has been implemented for distance learning across countless countries, but many nations simply do not have the resources. When it comes to pre-primary education, only 60 percent of countries have “adopted digital and/or broadcast remote learning policies.” This has left “31 percent of schoolchildren worldwide (463 million)” unreached by remote learning.
COVID is highly contagious and deadly, with potential long-term ramifications that will only be further revealed in time. The Omicron variant is spreading faster than prior variants and is impacting school age children more. These are the facts. But the consequences of lockdowns and school closures must be brought into focus, as well as the data where children are concerned. Reported by USA Today, according to CDC data, “Of the 73 million children in the U.S., fewer than 700 have died of COVID-19 during the course of the pandemic.” Reported by CNS, via CDC statistics, there have been approximately 1.9 million COVID cases reported in the 5-11 age group. Between January 1, 2020 and October 16, 2021, 94 children in this age range have died of COVID: this is 0.00012 percent of the 723,880 total U.S. COVID deaths through the week ending Oct. 16, 2021. Among children ages 5-11, COVID ranks below influenza/pneumonia and intentional self-harm (suicide) as a cause of death.
Jay Bhattacharya, Professor of Medicine at Stanford University, proposes the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), which calls for a return to normal life for low-risk children and non-elderly adults. He believes that “we can’t stop the spread of COVID, but we can end the pandemic.” Vaccines offer protection, albeit temporary, and it has become “abundantly clear that [lockdowns] have failed to contain the virus while wreaking enormous collateral damage worldwide.” Bhattacharya states that “the harms of lockdown on children and the non-elderly are catastrophic, including worse physical and mental health and irretrievably lost life opportunities.”
We must adapt to a new normal, doing what we can to manage the repercussions of a virus that may never be manageable. First, we focus vaccinating (and boosters) on the elderly, those never vaccinated, and those at-risk. Second, we make available effective early treatment options. Third, we make rapid antigen tests widely available (unlike this holiday season in the US). And lastly, according to Bhattacharya, we upgrade ventilation systems in public spaces.
These are practical solutions, called Focused Protection, that have been inconsistently applied. Bhattacharya reiterates that ending the pandemic “is primarily a social and political decision…In Sweden and many US states that have eschewed lockdowns, the pandemic is effectively over, even as the virus continues to circulate.” Through a compassionate approach of balancing risk and pushing towards herd immunity, we need to “allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally…while protecting those who are at highest risk.” We need to accept that COVID is not going to be eradicated. We need to accept that calculated risks must be taken. We need to accept that there are practical solutions that can be implemented to allow us to live in the world with COVID.
Geoff Watkinson has contributed to Guernica, storySouth, Brevity [Blog], The Humanist, The San Diego-Tribune, The Virginian-Pilot, and Switchback, among others. His first nonfiction collection, Have Some Faith in Loneliness & Other Essays, is due out in early 2022.. He is the founder/managing editor of Green Briar Review (www.greenbriarreview.com). Read more of his work at geoffwatkinson.wordpress.com/publications, or find him on Twitter: @GeoffWatkinson.