As a pediatrician in New Rochelle, New York, I’ve recently returned to my office to see patients in-person. The major pain point? My eight year-old daughter, who never experienced separation anxiety as a younger child, has started to cry when I leave for work and follows up with text messages that plead, “please come home, I miss you,” throughout the day. Preparing myself to help her confront fears of the COVID virus, I asked her why she was so upset. To my surprise, she isn’t worried about getting sick. She’s worried about being bored and alone. “I used to have a life and now I don't,” she told me.
I recently had a virtual patient visit with a mother of a non-verbal autistic child. He had entered school this past fall and was finally learning to sign some basic words and requests to his mom. With his school closed, he has regressed and stopped using the recently acquired communication skills. His mother is trying her best to care for him at home, but the lack of special education is particularly catastrophic. Another patient, a teenage boy who is a star student and athlete, has fallen into a severe depression after spending the past weeks home alone. His mother, a single parent and nurse who works an essential job, feels powerless to help him.
And this shift in mindset seems particularly representative of the current moment.
See, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was paralyzed by fear. I was terrified that a healthy patient could infect me through asymptomatic transmission. I worried about what that would mean for my family. But over time, I’ve adapted to our new normal. I began to wear protective equipment for all patient visits, even healthy newborns, and by taking these steps, I feel I can do the work I was trained to do. The gear does not eliminate all risk, but it helps.
The issue now is a social-emotional one. Pre-COVID, I typically relied on smiles and other small gestures to connect with my young patients. Now, when I walk in a room wearing my full PPE, babies cry and parents gasp. Luckily, when they hear my voice beneath the N95 mask and face shield, they know it’s me, but the problem is greater than the walls of my medical practice.
After all, we are a culture that usually puts the needs of children first, but I worry children are being left behind right now, and I think it’s time to elevate the conversation of “what about the kids” and think through creative ways to get our children back to some form of normalcy—and ideally soon.
What could that look like? Well, I am neither an epidemiologist nor an educator, but as a concerned mother and pediatrician, here are some of my brainstormed ideas. (Are they practical? Maybe not, but I see them a means to initiate a conversation on what we CAN do for our children going forward.)
First of all, I have to wonder about summer school--I know this idea won't make me popular, but we do know the virus is less transmittable outside, so summer may be our best chance for a while to get kids learning in person again. We can even create a more robust nature curriculum using outdoor classrooms in park spaces. I think we can save the virtual learning for winter when, theoretically, infection rates may rise. But I would love to see us taking advantage of this time before it slips away.
Now let’s talk about the fall. Many have expressed interest in the idea of a rotating schedule of school days, with kids placed in small group clusters during their “on” days, then relying on remote learning during their “off” days. I also think that with kids in school far less, we may need to consider that weekends are no longer pure times off, and we may need to have a more continuous cycle of education.
Finally, with soaring unemployment rates and college students out of work, perhaps we can develop a teaching apprentice corps, something along the lines of Teach for America, where young people are mentored by more experienced teachers and can assist in guiding curriculum, particularly virtually.
These are just ideas, of course. My point is that these ideas should be at the forefront of our national dialogue. After all, we speak often of the resilience of children, but resilience is a skill built through the support of the larger community. I am grateful that my practice has adapted and that I can do to my part to keep children healthy both physically and emotionally, but pediatric care is only a part of what helps children thrive. This spring and summer, let’s start the conversations about how other kid-centric organizations can use creative and innovative solutions to help youths get their lives back.