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Schools must consider ‘the whole child’ when reopening

As school districts weigh enormous questions over how and when to safely reopen, a major priority is trying to balance the physical safety of students with caring for their mental health and wellness.

In addition to in-person instruction, a big part of the campus experience is to help students strengthen their social and emotional skills. Mental health, social-emotional development and child abuse are all risk factors connected to being out of school due to coronavirus.

Amir Whitaker, policy counsel of the ACLU of Southern California, said that even before COVID-19 hit, officials said the nation was already in the throes of a mental health crisis.

The long-term psychological impact that coronavirus has on the closing of schools is yet to be determined, but in May, a Gallup poll found that 3 in 10 parents with school-aged children said their child is “already experiencing harm” to their emotional or mental health because of social distancing and closures. Another 14 percent indicated their children were approaching their limits.

Children are not the only ones at risk. Another Gallup poll found that 15 percent of U.S. adults reported that they themselves were already experiencing harm to their own emotional or mental health due to the closures. A month later, the percentage of adults already experiencing harm had already increased to 22 percent.

The Business Insider website recently published an article on how school closings this fall may affect kids psychologically. It said the possibility of schools not opening this fall worries many parents already dealing with practical day-to-day issues like day care but that they can prevent a lot of the negative effects by being proactive.

Here are some ways cited that can reduce children’s distress and keep them mentally strong:

• Establish a routine, such as setting aside time for school work, chores, exercise and play - similar to the way teachers do.

• Find safe ways to socialize - like playdates or organized activities - while observing social distancing.

• Encourage activities, such as an online cooking class or dance class, that can reduce feelings of isolation.

• Help your children set goals.

• Get professional help if you see changes in your child’s mood or behavior and know what community resources are available.

In testimony before a Senate committee, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said we don’t know everything about this virus but must be very careful, particularly when it comes to children, since there are “unintended negative consequences that occur when we keep them out of school.”

He was responding to a comment by Sen. Rand Paul, who stated that it’s a huge mistake not sending our kids back to school.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, along with the president and a group of health officials and politicians, also pushed for schools nationwide to open their doors in the fall so students can access school-based social-emotional supports.

DeVos said that for so many students the school environment is the best place for them to be and that they must continue to develop themselves, not going through another several months to a year of biding time.

A recent study at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health showed how the cancellation of school and the spring sports season has affected Wisconsin high school athletes. It showed that 65 percent of students canvassed in 71 of the state’s 72 counties reported anxiety symptoms, and nearly 69 percent of students reported depression symptoms.

Alex Azar, secretary of Health and Human Services, pointed to growing awareness around the “whole child,” saying that school settings are often where students’ social, emotional and physical health needs are cared for.

Educators and parents are wise to heed the advice of health experts like Azar, DeVos, Sen. Paul and Dr. Fauci, and prioritize a safe reopening that takes into consideration the “unintended negative consequences” that can occur when students are kept out of school.

By Jim Zbick | tneditor@tnonline.com