As the pandemic continues, where will all the children go?
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Four months ago, America’s 74 million children were active, conspicuous members of society, waiting for school buses, playing on playgrounds, and shopping with their families. Today, they are largely invisible, the homebound charges of frazzled parents. While newspapers and social media forums have filled with parenting advice about homeschooling and online playdates, society’s commitment to children has gone largely unmentioned. We did not forefront the interests of children in our initial pandemic response and they are seldom a focus of plans to “re-open” the economy, even though their health and development is at stake. The recent recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics to hold in-person classes this fall acknowledges this fact. Our government must, too. We must find ways to safely include children in federal, state, and local pandemic plans going forward.

Researchers are only beginning to document the impact on children of the COVID-19 lockdown, but it is already clear that our most vulnerable children are hungrier, less healthy, and in greater danger of harm today than they were in the spring. According to a Brookings Institute survey, food insecurity among households with children is at an all-time high. One-fifth of mothers with young children say their children are not getting enough to eat. In Wisconsin, referrals to child protective services are down, not because children are safer than before the pandemic—indeed there is reason to believe that many are at greater risk due to pandemic-related stresses on their parents—but because mandatory reporters in schools, childcare centers, and pediatric health care now have much less contact with children. Children with disabilities are missing out on services usually provided by school districts over the summer. And while most New York City school children joined distance learning activities, 16 percent did not engage in schoolwork, a trend that was mirrored nationwide. Even our most fortunate children have suffered academically, emotionally and physically—and now they are all home for the long summer.

It’s time to recognize the enormous sacrifice our nation’s children have already made and the devastating impact that prolonged isolation could have. They are this country’s future workers, future parents, future voters—but they are also citizens who have a right to benefit from government today. We see at least three concrete steps that federal, state and local leaders can take:

  1. Address children and engage them in government: The prime ministers of Canada and New Zealand used their public briefings to speak directly to children, acknowledging what children are giving up and explaining to children what is coming next. Children are accessible to our leaders: they watch television, listen to the radio, and follow the news online. As future voters and current constituents, they deserve to be thanked for their sacrifice and assured that their interests are being taken seriously in decisions at all levels of government.
  2. Direct relief funds to services and spaces that benefit children: As summer heats up, children need access to leafy spaces, water parks, and large air-conditioned spaces to exercise and play. In these spaces, children could receive some of the services normally provided in schools, including food, health care, and counseling. Federal, state and local emergency relief funds should be directed to acquiring or readying these spaces. The HEROES Act, currently under consideration in the Senate, would provide assistance to childcare providers and schools, but greater and sustained investment will be needed to keep up with sanitization protocols and provide PPE to children and workers, among other ways to keep children and their caretakers or educators safe. New ideas and spaces will be necessary to provide relief to children, too. If the national guard can transform one NYC convention center into a field hospital, perhaps they can transform another into a sanitizable children’s zone.
  3. Reopen schools, childcare centers, and other child-centered services not as they were but as they should be: Many of these spaces, as configured pre-pandemic, are crowded and underfunded. Reopening them safely should be a priority and represents an opportunity to do what has always needed to be done. Spaces for children should be roomy. Schools and childcare centers should have low teacher-child or low adult-child ratios. Millions are unemployed; could some be hired to work in schools, childcare centers, child protective services, and pediatric health care? Before restaurants shutter, could they be repurposed to provide food for children? This reconfiguring will require committing to the labor force that cares for and educates children, but what better way to prove to children that government is invested in them than by supporting the adults who do that important work? Significant federal funds will be necessary to support cash-strapped state and local districts as they implement changes to their physical spaces and expand their work forces.

The changes needed to give children their rightful place in our society cannot be achieved by parents alone. Indeed, the changes we suggest here are not the responsibility of parents, but of government. Children deserve policymaker’s attention, not only because an absence of schools and childcare centers prevents parents from working, but because children are citizens who are being harmed right now and time to prevent further harm is limited. Childhood is brief and precious. Our pandemic plans must seek to protect it.

Josephine Johnston is director of research at The Hastings Center, a leading bioethics research center. Carolyn Neuhaus is a research scholar at The Hastings Center.