Mental health and social-emotional development, Christakis argues, have been less discussed: “The social-emotional needs of children to connect with other children in real time and space, whether it’s for physical activity, unstructured play or structured play, this is immensely important for young children in particular.” A new study in JAMA Pediatrics, he says, documents elevated depression and anxiety among children under lockdown in China.
A third major risk, says Christakis, is child abuse. With schools closed and activities canceled, adults who are mandatory reporters, such as teachers, are less likely to catch wind of abuse or neglect. Hospitals around the country are reporting a rise in admissions for severe child abuse injuries and even deaths — a rise that coincides with lockdown orders. And a sex-abuse hotline operated by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network reported that half its calls in March came from minors, for the first time in its history.
In his editorial, Christakis calls for a panel made up of interdisciplinary experts to make school reopening a priority in the United States. “I think we should sort of reason backwards from the expectation that children do start school, that that’s an imperative. And then how do we make that happen safely?”
Safety, of course, is the reason schools closed around the world in the first place. It’s still considered very rare for children to become seriously ill from the coronavirus, but recently a handful of children have died from an inflammatory illness related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The science on children’s role in spreading the virus is also a moving target. A new analysis of Chinese contact-tracing data in the journal Science, co-authored by Maria Litvinova, suggests that children are in fact less susceptible to coronavirus infections. But because they have so much close contact at school, canceling in-person classes plays a key role in flattening the curve of an outbreak.
Litvinova says she is doubtful that schools, especially in big cities, can reliably enforce social distancing to reduce the number of contacts. “It’s very difficult to explain to children that they shouldn’t stay with their friends or talk with them or be close to each other.”