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The Impact of Prolonged School Closures on Children

COVID-19 measures affect child and adolescent mental health.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

By Stella Otai

Six months into the pandemic, the coronavirus disease is still on the loose and making headlines. Health security continues to deteriorate as the reported cases of infection now stand at 7.04 million with 404,396 deaths.

In the early days of the lockdown of "non-essential" activities and public places, most, if not every person hoped that by this time life would have returned to its normal routine and pattern. It has not. Wearing and talking through masks, social and physical distancing as the reopening of many activities kicks in with continued restrictions, it is still not the old routine. But, how do we collectively and collaboratively address the growing threats to children and adolescents’ mental and physical health?

Studies show that the global pandemic has profound effects not only on the aspects of society, but also the mental health and physical health of adults, children, and adolescents. It’s very important that the mental health care for children and adolescents is taken very seriously. To this, research shows that most children’s mental health disorders begin in childhood and, if not identified and treated early, will impact that child’s development, potentially leading to poor health and social outcomes. Studies indicate that, in the US, close to 55 million students from kindergarten through 12th grade are affected by school closures. In China, about 220 million children and adolescents in primary school, secondary school, and preschool are confined to their homes.

UNESCO highlights some of the challenges of school closures and home confinement. For instance, school closures meant the shifting of roles from teacher to parent, whose skills do not match the needs of home and distance schooling. Increased social isolation, inability of parents to assess, measure, and validate learning—especially calendar-based assessments to determine advancement to next education levels—increased exposure of children to violence, exploitation, and maltreatment, all of these impact the health of a child. Moreover, the empirical studies suggest that keeping children and adolescents less physically active and disrupting their routine activities have negative impacts on child and adolescent mental health and physical health. The outcome is that 42% of the world’s population is exposed to long-term negative effects on their mental health.

If some countries and US states have postponed reopening of schools to the next academic year and restrictions to all weekend and summer holiday outdoor activities continue, how affected will the mental health of our children and adolescents be?

In order to mitigate the increasing threats to children and adolescents’ mental and physical health, everyone must actively, rapidly, and collaboratively act towards mitigating the growing threats. For instance, since the COVID-19 pandemic is a global threat, international communities, researchers, professionals, and policymakers should proactively share psychological and social information. This can be used to create interventions that prioritise the provision of immediate and long-term strategies to reduce the mental health impacts on children and adolescents during school closures.

It’s important that governments encourage the widespread use of teletherapy and virtual mental health services in the short-term in order to not delay services for children and youth with past mental health treatment for pre-existing needs. For instance, increased use of mobile mental health apps could be designed to capture the interests and focus of both children and adolescents.

During the prolonged school closure, governments should encourage the principals, presidents, and professionals of schools and colleges to coordinate with community mental health agencies to deliver services within school settings. This would potentially increase the continuity of mental health and physical health care.

Governments, INGOs, NGOs, and religious institutions should collectively work towards empowering under-resourced communities and provide for the unmet needs, especially those which directly impact the mental health of youth. For instance, some families or communities are struggling with food insecurity, economic needs, and general family support. These realities could threaten the nutritional health of children and adolescents and, eventually, their mental health.

To mitigate the consequences of home confinement, governments, humanitarian organisations, NGOs, communities, schools, and parents all need to work together to ensure that they collectively address the challenging situation and together identify the effective interventions to address these issues immediately.

Governments through respective ministries and agencies should continually increase awareness concerning the need to use available resources to support the mental wellbeing of their children and adolescents.

Written by Stella Otai, a master's student at Wheaton College (IL) studying Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership.


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