Before the Covid-19 pandemic, our years of activism were finally paying off and popular legislation across the country was just starting to roll back draconian high-stakes exams, citing the harm it does to the psychology, health, and academic performance of America’s schoolchildren. Instead of desks in a row, they recommended round tables. Instead of multiple choice assignments, they recommended collaborative projects. Instead of punitive discipline, they recommended mindfulness and socio-emotional learning.
The future looked bright for a free, student-centered, constructivist education for all children. It seemed that finally it wouldn’t just be rich families who could afford to opt out of restrictive test-based academic settings.
That was until Covid-19 reached America’s shores and overnight transformed the American public education system into something unrecognizable: a system of restrictions and mandates far more repressive than standardized testing ever was. Students in most American classrooms now must wear a covering over their face and stay distanced from their peers the entire school day. In many schools, students are forced to play by themselves during recess. Even for the youngest of school children, desks are in rows. Kids can’t see each other’s smiles or learn critically important social and verbal skills.
The phrase I hear repeated over and over again to justify masks is: “kids are resilient.”
But as an elementary school educator and Ph.D. student at Columbia University trained in trauma-informed instruction, I am concerned that this statement is overly simplistic and misleading. What we should be saying is: “masks and social distancing induce trauma and trauma at a young age is developmentally dangerous, especially for children who are experiencing trauma in other parts of their lives.”
Psychologists have often misrepresented trauma as only resulting from isolated events, like the loss of a parent or a car accident. But studies on poverty have helped expand the definition of trauma to ongoing, persistent stress or fear when a child is constantly releasing the stress hormone, cortisol. According to the American Psychiatric Association, “traumas are defined as events that result in or pose a threat to a person’s physical integrity and that cause a reaction of intense fear, horror, or helplessness.” This is the kind of threat children perceive when they are told to distance themselves from other children and cover the part of their body with which they communicate, express their emotions, and feed themselves. Forcing children to wear masks or distance themselves from peers not only signals that they are a threat to others and/or that others are a threat to them, but also takes away the most basic way children calm their nervous system. As Psychology Today reported, “facial expressions of others help us to calm our nervous system, but if we don’t receive those signals, we might go into survival mode.”
More studies should be conducted on just how traumas from Covid-19 restrictions in schools are associated with the long-term health and well-being of American children, but research on Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome has illuminated that “stress and fear, in response to actual or possible threat, enhances the possibility of forming trauma-related memories.” Every year of a child’s early life lays the foundation for their adulthood and insecure foundations do, in fact, crumble. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, children without assurance of their personal security (e.g. social anxiety from masks and social distancing) are often incapable of making healthy social connections and may have difficulty building intimate relationships in their lives. Neurological research demonstrates that kids who experience this kind of fear and trauma at a young age undergo structural and functional restructuring of their brain’s prefrontal cortex, resulting in emotional and cognitive processing problems. This trauma is especially concerning for children growing up in poverty who often have the compounding effect of other trauma at home or in their community. Before Covid-19, already nearly half of all American children had experienced trauma in their lives.
Furthermore, children in masks who are socially distanced are more likely to lead a sedentary lifestyle at school and home, and therefore are also more likely to become both obese and depressed. Obesity disproportionately affects children from low-income backgrounds and can lead to lifelong health challenges that often result in early death. Tragically, the prevalence of clinical depression and anxiety have already doubled for children globally since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and will likely worsen with continued restrictions.
Children in masks are also likely to miss out on critical language development, another fundamental area of growth in early years where children from low-income backgrounds already have disproportionate disadvantages.
Covid-19 cases among children have increased due to the Delta variant, but according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “0.00%-0.03% of all child COVID-19 cases resulted in death” this past week. Despite sensationalized clickbait news coverage, a child’s current chance of death from Covid-19 in America is lower than their chance of dying from a lightning strike or car accident.
We should keep watching the data to monitor whether children experience morbidity and mortality worse than they currently do, and adjust as is appropriate. But we must ask ourselves: do the benefits of masks and social distancing truly outweigh the long-term psychological, physical, social, and academic harm we are inflicting on a whole generation of American schoolchildren? If we care about equity and the most vulnerable members of our society, we at least can’t be afraid to ask.