“We have failed our children.” ~ Dr. Leana Wen, Professor of Health Policy and Management
“We have failed our children” is an especially hard-hitting quote from Dr. Leana Wen in a recent CNN interview. Dr. Wen was referring to the adverse impact that lockdowns and school closures have had on our children’s mental and physical health, as evidenced by a large study published last month.
The research systematically reviewed 36 studies from 11 countries that assessed school closures and social lockdown during COVID-19. It was determined that these measures were “associated with adverse mental health symptoms (such as distress and anxiety) and health behaviors (such as higher screen time and lower physical activity) among children and adolescents.”
These effects have fueled the already contentious debate about whether we have correctly balanced the potential epidemiologic benefits of school closures with the potential detrimental effects on children.
This article explores the findings of the study in greater detail and looks beyond this current situation to the future of our children and how we can help mitigate the negative impact of this pandemic.
School Closures: An Overview
In the first wave of COVID-19 in 2020, approximately 1.5 billion children and adolescents were out of school globally. Since then, almost every country worldwide has continued to incorporate school closures as part of their policy in controlling the spread of the virus. Lockdowns and school closures as parts of local or national lockdown measures have been in constant flux during 2020, 2021, and now into 2022 with the rise of the Omicron variant.
The theory behind school closures is that by reducing social contacts the transmission of the virus is disrupted. However, as school closures are implemented as part of a wider societal or community lockdown, the effectiveness as a standalone measure is largely unquantifiable.
The Impact of School Closures on Children’s Health
The closure of schools is related to various levels of harm through a number of different mechanisms, including:
- Restrictions on social interaction
- Decreased quality of education
- Loss of access to school services such as health services and school meals
- Loss of school as a “safety net”
- Loss of activities and hobbies
These factors are associated with a decline in children’s and adolescents’ physical health and mental health and a rise in instances of child abuse and neglect.
There has been a substantial toll on children’s physical health as a result of school closures. Active transport to school, playing and socializing with friends, and school sports are all integral to a child’s fitness and health.
Physical health has been affected in the following ways:
- 52% decrease in daily physical activity
- 41% increase in sedentary behavior
- 245% increase in daily screen time
- Increased levels of consumption of unhealthy food and a reduction in intake of fruit and vegetables
- Increase in the number of meals/snacks eaten per day
- Increase in the number of overweight or obese children
Obesity is linked to a number of chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer. It is therefore essential that we work to counteract the sedentary behaviors acquired during the past two years and place emphasis on the physical well-being of our young people to enable them to have bright, healthy, active futures.
The impacts listed above from school closures additionally resulted in a pronounced increase of mental health disorders among children and adolescents. Three key areas are thought to be crucial contributors:
- The reduction in social interaction with peers leads to a loss of self-esteem and reduced confidence.
- The lack of interaction with teachers and adults reduces opportunities for social and cognitive development.
- The loss of social activities, hobbies, clubs, and valued interests that school provides also contributes to a decline in overall wellbeing.
Research has indicated that all types of child and teenage mental health disorders have soared since 2020. These include anxiety disorders, depression, self-harm, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD), eating disorders, behavioral difficulties, and suicidal ideation.
Those who already had poor connection with family and peers or whose family members had pre-existing mental health issues or physical ill-health prior to lockdowns saw the highest increase in anxiety and depression scores.
Reports of child abuse have decreased during the last two years by almost 30%. This may appear to be good news that indicates a reduction in child abuse occurrences. However, this signifies that instances of abuse and neglect are being driven underground.
Schools provide a safe community for children and adolescents that, when removed, results in an absence of surveillance for abuse and neglect and a significant reduction in opportunities for the child to report it.
The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented, which makes it almost impossible to measure success or failure in our care towards our children.
The vast majority of parents and authority figures have been aware of the adverse impact lockdowns have had on children, and their rallying cries have been ringing out since early 2020.
We cannot avoid the reality before us as we witness children’s physical and mental health decline.
This quote from Dr. Birgitta Rabe accurately sums up the situation we now find ourselves in as Omicron figures continue to surge and school closures remain active across the globe:
Results suggest that the effects of school closures on children’s wellbeing are large, and that they may take some time to mend. Going back to school in itself does not appear to be sufficient for children to “bounce back.” Additional support for children’s mental health and wellbeing is likely to be required for some time and justifies the focus that many schools have been placing on pupil wellbeing.
We all, as members of both a global society and a local community, have vital roles to play in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our young people. Through a united front, compassion, empathy, therapeutic support, and creative effort we can help our children and teenagers regain what they have lost during the pandemic.
It is never too late to intervene if you have concern about your child’s mental health. If you or anyone you know is struggling, please do not suffer alone. Please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates. Call 800-335-0316 or email firstname.lastname@example.org today.
 “Study: Covid-19 Closures Can Harm Kids’ Mental Health”. Youtube.Com, 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3eimL-RYI2o.
 Viner, Russell et al. “School Closures during Social Lockdown and Mental Health, Health Behaviors, and Well-Being among Children and Adolescents during the First COVID-19 Wave”. JAMA Pediatrics, 2022. American Medical Association (AMA), https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.5840. Accessed 2 Feb 2022.
 UNESCO. COVID-19 education response. Published 2020. Accessed January 15, 2021. https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/globalcoalition
 “K-12 School Opening Tracker”. Cai.Burbio.Com, 2022, https://cai.burbio.com/school-opening-tracker/.
 Viner RM, Russell SJ, Croker H, et al. School closure and management practices during coronavirus outbreaks including COVID-19: a rapid systematic review. Lancet Child Adolesc Health. 2020;4(5):397-404. doi:10.1016/S2352-4642(20)30095-X
 Walsh S, Chowdhury A, Braithwaite V, et al. Do school closures and school reopenings affect community transmission of COVID-19? a systematic review of observational studies. BMJ open. 2021;11(8):e053371. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2021-053371
 Kneale D, O’Mara-Eves A, Rees R, Thomas J. School closure in response to epidemic outbreaks: systems-based logic model of downstream impacts. F1000Res. 2020;9:352. doi:10.12688/f1000research.23631.1
 “School Closures Hit Children’S Mental Health Hard – Nuffield Foundation”. Nuffield Foundation, 2022, https://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/news/new-evidence-shows-how-school-closures-hit-childrens-mental-health-hard.