Jimmy’s Denver Gazette Column | Remote learning, not COVID, imperils kids
Written by Jimmy at the Crossroads on January 29, 2021
Last November in Colorado Politics, I revealed publicly how, seven years ago this past New Year’s Eve, I almost took my own life. Thankfully, I stopped myself from jumping off a parking garage that night and ended up in an overnight mental health hold.
For over seven years, I underwent treatment for clinical depression and anxiety. I saw a therapist and a psychiatrist; I took antidepressants and antianxiety medications. I redoubled my treatment after that fateful New Year’s night, and my renewed diligence markedly improved my mental well being and my coping skills. By the end of 2018, I was allowed off my medications and no longer needed professional help.
Over countless months, public health and school district officials alike have focused on controlling the spread of COVID-19. But another public health calamity that will endure for years has been simmering underneath and all-too ignored: A heartbreaking, escalating mental health crisis.
CDC reports mental health-related emergency room visits from March to October 2020 rose 31% for ages 12-17 and 24% for ages 5-11 year-over-year. Youth suicide and suicidal ideation are up dramatically.
Colorado school districts are only now reverting to in-person learning. However, Douglas County Schools (DCSD) is a prime example of a district that continues to disserve its students. Whereas DCSD elementary kids have finally returned for full in-person learning, middle and high school students are stuck in remote.
I first argued for reopening schools way back in July, emphasizing data which clearly showed children are far less likely to get, spread or most importantly, die from COVID-19 than adults.
Indeed, according to CDC figures as of Jan. 27, among the 359,352 American “deaths involving COVID-19,” only 203 were aged 18 and younger. The loss of any child for any reason is tragic. I won’t diminish that. But 203 equates to 0.0565% of all “deaths involving COVID-19.”
In just 10 months since lockdowns began last March, America has lost significantly more children to suicide. Colorado alone has lost dozens of children as young as 10 to suicide. Nearby in Nevada, suicides doubled in Clark County Schools (Las Vegas) from nine to 18. It’s jolted that district to redouble their reopening efforts. But this isn’t just about suicides.
While I’m proud of my own journey, I’ve learned there is no quick fix for serious mental illness. Such afflictions can take years – if not a lifetime – to resolve.
Depression and other mental illnesses are grave and serious. Children who have taken their own lives will never return. Those facing diagnosed – or even worse, undiagnosed – mental illness or learning disabilities will at best take years to recover. Pandemic-era school closures will forever debilitate vulnerable children.
To be sure, remote learning is not the sole cause of this mental health crisis. However, when kids are deprived of social connections and a meaningful learning environment, it singularly amplifies at-home burdens like parents’ job losses or deaths of loved ones due to the virus.
This disaster has finally garnered national attention in The New York Times and Washington Post in the past couple weeks. The Post discussed a “review of dozens of studies about the effects of social isolation and loneliness on the mental health of previously healthy children and adolescents found that they increased the risk of depression and possibly anxiety for up to nine years.” Current demand for therapeutic services often requires months-long waitlists; students who never showed mental health symptoms before are showing them now.
Children’s mental illness is but one of many enduring consequences of the insufferable shift to remote learning. Yet data is clear on COVID-19 spread in K-12 schools versus depression and suicide spikes, regressions in student learning and many other long-run injuries from school closures.
A striking CDC report published Tuesday in the American Medical Association’s journal concludes, “[T]here has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.” It references U.S. and international studies demonstrating near-nonexistent transmission rates in in-person environments – particularly student-to-staff transmission – and supports findings that COVID-19 incidence is “lower in schools than in the community.”
Many of us have insisted schools reopen for in-person learning for months, citing previously-available data. Now, it’s conclusive. The CDC, Dr. Fauci and others are finally accepting the real-world data. Yet many Colorado school districts like DCSD still refuse to return to full in-person learning for all K-12 students. Why? They are following fear, not science and data. And they are irreparably harming students.
Faced with the shocking and unsubstantiated extension of remote and hybrid learning and their many horrible and indelible consequences, some DougCo parents are looking at recalling some of their floundering school board members. Perhaps it’s time for parents in other districts to consider doing the same. At a minimum, maybe it will light fires underneath district leaders to start meeting the needs of their students.