Silver Linings: How Lessons Learned from the Pandemic Can Pave the Way for a Brighter Future
By Dr. Robert Murray, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics, Division of GI & Nutrition
Department of Pediatrics, The Ohio State University College of Medicine
Vice-Chair of Action for Healthy Kids Board of Directors
COVID-19 brought to light health issues and inequities that have existed for decades in our country, and forced us to reckon not only with the virus itself, but also with these long-standing issues. While the challenges have been enormous, we have worked together as a society to make improvements. We must continue the momentum and seize this opportunity to make much-needed, long overdue changes. Now is the time to build upon solutions we’ve identified, and make the necessary investments to improve the health of kids today and in the future.
I have spent my career in pediatrics, with an interest in the gastrointestinal tract and child nutrition. Early on, I realized the significant role that schools play in children’s physical, mental, and social health. At the time this was relatively uncommon. While other pediatricians focused on specific and unique cases, I focused on how the place where children spend more than 40% of their day could be leveraged to promote their well-being.
Some of the health issues that students have struggled with, even before the pandemic, can be linked to policies that developed in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. At that time, there was a strong push for schools to rapidly improve student test scores, and with these policy changes, physical education, art, recess, and more were cut. The unintended consequences of these policies that continue today–such as a decrease in physical activity, a rise in childhood obesity, and increased mental health issues– are significant. What’s more, these issues disproportionately impact under-resourced and low-income areas.
With school closures starting in March of 2020, and extending for months, depression, suicide, eating disorders, and food insecurity all increased drastically across the U.S. The loss of meals provided by schools became detrimental to students’ health and well-being. Around 30 million U.S. kids depend on free and reduced meals, and in September of 2020, only about 15% of them were actually receiving the meals.
In addition, student mental health suffered. Social distancing meant students lost the opportunity to practice social skills. In fact, strong social skills are linked to the brain’s executive function and are learned through practice, which is especially critical for kids who come from environments where social interactions are lacking. Without the chance to hone social skills at school, kids’ psychosocial abilities suffered.
Most schools have now returned to in-person learning, thanks to tools we have available to mitigate risk, including vaccines, testing, masks, and improved ventilation. As stated by the American Academy of Pediatrics, in-person school is critical for kids– not only to support academics, but also for the social and emotional lessons learned in school environments.
As schools have reopened, we are seeing ways in which issues are being addressed at the federal, state, and local levels. Congress has introduced legislation that invests in universal pre-K and affordable, high-quality child care across the country. Some states are changing their child nutrition policies to make it easier for students to access the meals that they rely on in schools. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is hoping to use the momentum of congress’ temporary extension of the school meal program to make it a permanent program in the U.S. At the local level, Action for Healthy Kids is forming partnerships with families and schools to address the impacts of the pandemic and support the three foundations of child health: food access and nutrition; physical activity and play; and social-emotional health.
Investing in kids’ health and education not only improves their academics and overall well-being, but it also has a larger economic impact in this country. Early education helps kids learn important executive function and relationship-building skills that set them up for success throughout their educational careers and in life. Quality education and childcare also means that parents and caregivers can enter and stay in the workforce, leading to broad economic benefits.
As we look towards moving from a pandemic to an endemic, we have a unique opportunity to shape our future. Let’s learn from the challenges of these past few years, focus on continuing to find creative solutions, and work together to make sure our schools and kids have the resources they need to thrive. It’s an investment that will pay off for generations to come.