The unintended consequences of school closures

“Prolonged social isolation is deadly. We have already lost one child to suicide in this county because of it. I am not willing to lose another, which is why I have made it my mission to advocate for our youth — especially those in already vulnerable situations.”

I wrote the preceding excerpt on Jan. 21 in an exasperated and desperate social media post. Tragically, five days later, a 17-year-old, three-sport athlete from Sheridan died in an apparent suicide.

It pains me that so many kids in our community are struggling just to get through each day, and I refuse to be complacent about these circumstances. We must not overlook a heartbreaking and even fatal consequence from this pandemic — the emotional well-being of our children.

Rates of mental illness and suicide among young people were steadily rising even before the pandemic.

Alarmingly, evidence from this past year indicates the social isolation caused by school closures and suspension of other activities, including sports, has exacerbated an ongoing childhood mental health catastrophe. From escalating psychiatric dilemmas to concerns about growing incidences of abuse, neglect, drug overdose and sexual exploitation, the pandemic is threatening the legacy of our young.

What is social isolation and why should we be talking about it? Put simply, social isolation is a lack of connection with others.

Human beings are social creatures. So being isolated can significantly affect our physical and psychological health.

Pediatricians, psychologists and social workers like me are sounding the alarm on the potential effects of prolonged social isolation on children as a result of the pandemic.

Research has uncovered a disturbing trend. Anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidal thinking have risen to frightening levels.

Teens seem to be suffering the most. They are lonely and bored, and interacting online is not the same as time spent with friends or family face-to-face.

Schools in Las Vegas recently reopened for in-person learning in the wake of 18 students taking their lives during nine months of school closures.

Here in Oregon, we are approaching one year since many kids have seen the inside of a classroom. And the documentation is abundantly clear on the adverse impact from lack of school contact, especially for those who are homeless, in foster care, coping with disabilities, still learning English and/or from disadvantaged socioeconomic households.

Ironically, government policies intended to curtail the virus have had unintended consequences that endanger lives — including the lives of young people.

Research from around the world has established that individuals under 18, particularly those toward the younger end of the 0 to 18 age range, are less susceptible to infection, less likely to suffer acute symptoms, and are considerably less likely to face hospitalization or death from COVID-19. Thus, it is becoming increasingly evident that imposing isolation on healthy kids is misguided. It unnecessarily denies them of socialization activities vital to their growth and development.

Researchers with the federal Centers for Disease Control recently affirmed there is really no justification for schools to continue remaining closed. That finding parallels other recent studies in Europe and Asia as well as the U.S.

The data overwhelmingly shows minimal COVID-19 transmission in schools. In fact, in most cities where schools are open, the transmission rate is lower in the classroom than in the surrounding community.

Contrary to what was initially thought, schools do not appear to be serving as super-spreaders of the virus. The scientific evidence suggests schools can reopen safely if they adhere to specific SARS-CoV-2 prevention and mitigation policies, such as masking and physical distancing.

As a clinician, I do not take my advocacy role lightly. And as a parent of two teenagers, this situation is personal for me.

The safety of our young people cannot be understated. The data should guide our actions.

We are far enough into this pandemic to make reasonable conclusions, based on the best available evidence, of the genuine danger social isolation and school closures pose to our kids. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people, and any heightened infection risk for educators and families must be evaluated against that.

Unquestionably, there is a delicate balance to be reached between the value of COVID restrictions on the one hand and  untoward impacts they impose on the mental health, social development and wellbeing of our youth. But it increasingly appears to be tipping toward resumption of classroom education.

I lead with our teachers’ unions to acknowledge the science, as well as the broader consequences of their personal safety demands. COVID will eventually fade away, but the psychological and academic repercussions could linger long after the  immediate threat of the virus has passed.

Let us be courageous. Let us be warriors for our students during this crisis. Let us place their needs ahead of our own and support decisions facilitating their return to school.

Tracie McKinley-Lux is a licensed clinical social worker operating a private practice based in McMinnville.


Don Dix

Tracie -- the governor seems to enjoy 'dictating' to citizens of the state -- and she has never made any educational decision without the OEA and other unions' approval. There is no doubt who and what calls the shots in Oregon's government. Possibly someday, Oregon voters might wake up to the corruption (political cash) that has taken up residence throughout the government.

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