On his second day of virtual kindergarten in September 2020, my son grabbed his Chromebook, took aim at the basement wall and prepared to throw it with all his might; I got there in the nick of time to stop it.
The pandemic has been tough on Aiden, a bright and outgoing boy who has always thrived in a classroom. It hit when he was in preschool. Six months of virtual kindergarten were miserable before we found a space for him in a private school. First grade back in our public school has been something close to normal, but three schools in three consecutive school years hasn’t been easy on him, and we’re still picking up all the social and emotional pieces.
And yet, Aiden is one of the lucky ones. He is not one of the 7.8 million children who have been infected with COVID-19, or one of the 167,000 who have lost a parent or caregiver, or one of the nearly 6,000 who have developed a severe inflammatory condition as a result of infection, or one of the more than 800 who have died from this virus.
As any parent can attest, the silver lining of this pandemic has been kids being at lower risk of being infected by or developing severe disease from COVID-19. But children remain the forgotten victims of COVID-19. Too many adults act as though lower risk for kids means no risk at all. The above numbers prove that children are not immune from this virus. As omicron revs its powerful engines, those numbers will continue to grow.
But the consequences of our failure to prioritize children’s health and well-being go far beyond direct impacts of the virus itself. We see this most clearly in schools. Due in large part to long-term school closures, K-12 children nationally — and in Maryland — remain months behind where they should be on reading and math with existing achievement gaps widening for children of color and those from families paid low wages.
Wearing masks in indoor public settings is especially important in areas with high or substantial transmission and one of the best strategies to help keep schools and child care facilities open. Yet Maryland is one of 40-plus states without a statewide mask mandate, even in the face of omicron’s incredibly high transmissibility, and our State Board of Education is focusing on masking off-ramps at a time when we should be doubling down on proven and effective health measures. Worse still, some schools in our state have already transitioned back to virtual learning even while their jurisdictions permit other activities with much higher risk, such as indoor dining, to continue. Given these types of decisions, it is no wonder that a youth mental health crisis that pediatric experts have labeled a national emergency has been further exacerbated by the pandemic.
We see this kind of bad management at a national level as well. Congress, to its credit, has provided emergency relief that has helped improve kids’ health and quality of life in the short-term. For instance, the Child Tax Credit was increased and made fully refundable, so that families with no or low wages could receive the full amount; the expanded credit has lifted millions of children out of poverty and put food on the table for families who struggle to afford it. But the advance monthly payments for the expanded credit have expired, threatening to put upward of 10 million children back into poverty. And the apparent demise of the Build Back Better Act makes it more likely that the expanded Child Tax Credit will be a thing of the past, along with other provisions — including universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, affordable child care, paid family and medical leave, and investments in school nutrition and maternal health — that would have been game-changers for children and their families.
As a parent, I am continually struck by how much better children are than adults at following the rules, looking out for each other, and doing the right thing to keep themselves and the people around them safe. They are relying more than ever on the adults in the halls of Congress, statehouses, boardrooms and school buildings to take good care of them. Our failure to do so to date is enough to make anyone want to throw a computer. What children need, and what our state and country need, is for the adults in the room to finally get it together and make the tough, grown-up decisions that are in the best interests of our kids.
Adam Zimmerman (email@example.com) is a public interest communications consultant.