None of us have experienced anything like the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s created new challenges for us, as we huddle together in homes for days on end. We’re learning how to parent in a crisis. We wonder what kind of toll the pandemic is taking on our mental health, and our children’s.
We know children are shaped by their environment as well as their genes. For kids growing up in poverty, without nutritious food, in poor housing in remote areas where getting around is tough, and without access to internet, life is an uphill climb. They’re beginning the race far behind the starting line of their peers. If those same kids are exposed to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) like abuse, neglect, substance use in the home, domestic violence, mental illness in the home, one or both parents missing from the home, or someone from the home in prison, being quarantined at home is more than an inconvenience; it is creating the likelihood that these children will suffer long-term health problems into adulthood, like heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes.
COVID-19 has been a magnifying glass that exposes our societal weaknesses, especially for the most vulnerable kids. In a sense, the pandemic is a super-ACE for some children– an accelerant for the hurdles in their lives that threatens their social, emotional, intellectual, and their physical wellbeing. Without school’s social bonds, the intellectual stimulation, the “eyes-on” attention of teachers, counselors, and staff, these kids are off the radar. Many children live in families without access to internet or have more than one kid at home and single computer that an adult will need to use for remote work. The cracks have widened, and they will inevitably fall through. We see our federal, state and community priorities emerging. How often have you heard policymakers reference the needs of these children?
Before the pandemic, we became inured to the idea that our public schools have become the largest source of nutritious meals for children in our country. Is this what Harry Truman envisioned when he signed the National School Lunch Program in 1946? Was it ever intended to serve 30 million children , or was it intended as a safety net for our most vulnerable kids?
Maybe a more important question is: Has the safety net grown so big, because the number of vulnerable children has increased? And if so, why didn’t we notice?
We’ve become desensitized to the plight of our country’s children, much like the frog who becomes accustomed to the ever-rising water temperatures. We know the old story. The frog, growing accustomed to the rising temperatures, doesn’t jump out of the boiling water. Sadly, in many ways, neither have we.
Every crisis brings an opportunity. In the case of the pandemic, it is the opportunity to awaken from our stupor to see the problems our kids face in the harsh and unforgiving light of this crisis. For more children than we care to acknowledge, this pandemic will, indeed, serve as an adverse childhood experience. Addressing their needs will take significant time, resources, and planning. Will we rise to the occasion, or will we continue to sit?
Dr. Michael Brumage is the medical director Cabin Creek Health Systems, co-chair of the West Virginia ACEs Coalition, and founding member of Think Kids.