During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a significant increase in rates of physical inactivity, misbehavior, and unmet health needs among children, along with concerns about parental stress. This information comes from a recent analysis of federal data on child well-being. On the other hand, the number of children diagnosed with depression and anxiety continued to follow the same trend as before the pandemic, steadily increasing between 2016 and 2020. Researchers from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration examined parent-reported data collected between 2016 and 2020, looking for five-year trends and statistically significant increases between 2019 and 2020. The goal was to identify issues that may have been worsened by the pandemic and to determine if there were persistent problems that existed even before the national crisis.
The researchers also found that during the first year of the pandemic, there was an increase in rates of parental job transitions, adding to the challenges faced by families. These findings have important implications for schools, as they highlight the impact of the pandemic on child well-being. The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, a journal of the American Medical Association, prompted a statement from U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, acknowledging the exceptional burden that COVID-19 placed on the mental well-being of families and children.
However, the authors of the study caution against drawing a definitive causal link between the changes in the data and the pandemic. They note that the survey questions were administered between June and January each year, and some questions asked parents to reflect on the past 12 months, which means their responses for 2020 may reflect experiences before the onset of the pandemic.
These findings come at a time when school districts are grappling with the increasing needs of students. Many districts are implementing new mental health programs, connecting families to community resources such as food pantries, and improving methods for identifying and supporting students who are experiencing homelessness. While schools have received significant federal relief aid, district administrators still face challenges, particularly in terms of staffing.
Caution Regarding Making Strong Connections to COVID
However, the authors of the study expressed some reservations when analyzing the data. They emphasized the need for careful interpretation of the 2020 estimates, and stressed the importance of gathering data from additional years to determine whether 2020 truly marked a turning point for certain trends. They also highlighted the need to grasp the duration of the indirect effects of the pandemic.
Nevertheless, the findings reinforce other sources of data and discussions among educators. For instance, a national survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center in January revealed that 39 percent of respondents believed that the "social skills and emotional maturity levels" of their current students were significantly less advanced compared to before the pandemic in 2019. Forty-one percent stated that their students’ levels were somewhat less advanced, while 16 percent reported that they remained "about the same" as their peers prior to the pandemic. Educators attributed these concerns to disruptions in face-to-face learning, a polarizing political climate among adults, and family-related stressors such as parental employment issues.