Schoolchildren in Colorado may have been the most overlooked victims of COVID-19. Not in terms of contracting the virus itself, of course; children were the least likely to catch it, and those who resisted it quite well. Instead, they have been crushed by the company’s wide-ranging efforts to curb the pandemic. And for policy makers concerned with staying on top of the COVID workload from week to week, the plight of our children has too often been put on the back burner.
So it was encouraging to say the least to hear the state announce last week that students will not be required to wear masks in class when they return to reopened schools in the fall. The revised public health order makes sense not only in practice, given the negligible sensitivity of young people to the most dire consequences of the declining virus, but also symbolically. It tells students that they will finally be free from the numbing isolation that has crippled them academically, physically, socially, psychologically and emotionally.
The good news is long overdue. A return to normalcy cannot come quickly enough for the children of Colorado. There is a lot of lost ground to be reclaimed, not only when it comes to their formal education and academic performance, but also in their life in general.
When the hard and swift spring 2020 lockdown shut schools down, teachers and administrators scrambled to whip up an ad hoc online curriculum. By most accounts it was chaos and learning was in freefall. But even after hard data made it clear that COVID posed a very limited threat to children in school, many remained stuck in distance learning. When online schooling resumed in the fall in most public school districts, lesson plans were more organized and systematic, but it was still a pale imitation of the school as the kids knew it. in the old days. And at the start of last spring semester, many school districts, including the state’s largest, in Denver, still offered only a limited option to return to in-person learning that amounted to learning at distance to school.
It didn’t help that unions representing much of the faculty and staff in the state’s largest school districts did everything in their power to keep schools closed to in-person learning. Every attempt by parents, various political leaders and other stakeholders to reopen schools – to bring children back to class, to interschool sports, to campus life – has been met with dragging the feet of the unions. .
Along with the closure of the conventional school, many other aspects of children’s daily life, which are essential, have also been closed. Cinemas, sports clubs, family vacations, and even shopping trips were severely limited. Friendships were suspended as classmates became abstractions in the digital space. School sports seasons have been canceled. Amusement parks have been closed and other popular youth-focused businesses have been closed. The rims have even been removed from the rear panels at local parks for a while.
All the while, the order of masks remained in place – in some cases, incredibly, even in interschool sports when students were training outdoors on wide open athletic fields. While some school districts were determined to assure the public that their children would “stay safe” from the virus, they neglected to consider the impact of their own sometimes absurd and uniform decrees. Just as the mask had become a reassuring symbol of solidarity against a public peril for some adults, for the children it was a reminder that their lives were on hold. Apparently, indefinitely. The mask suffocated our children figuratively – and in some activities like basketball, almost literally.
An unprecedented statement from the Colorado Children’s Hospital in May – alerting the public to a “state of emergency in pediatric mental health” for the state’s youth – has been a wake-up call.
“We are overwhelmed with children who are trying to kill themselves and suffer from other forms of serious mental illness,” said hospital president Jena Hausmann. The excruciating isolation pushed our children to the brink. Children had become collateral damage in our war on COVID.
“While the children did quite well at the start of the pandemic, the cumulative stress of schools (shutting down or moving to a hybrid model) and not being able to do the things they normally do has somehow reached its climax, “said Dr. Mike DiStefano, the chief medical officer at Colorado Children’s Hospital in Colorado Springs, told the Gazette at the time.
Finally, our children are taking back control of their lives. In doing so, the rest of us must remember that the many steps we have taken to spare ourselves from a global pandemic may have their own consequences. Maybe in the next crisis we will try to better balance our priorities. Our future, after all, depends not only on our own survival, but even more on the survival of our children.