How COVID-19 exacerbates inequities among vulnerable children

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The COVID-19 pandemic has made an unprecedented impact on our society, and for many children, its impact could be far-reaching. An estimated 74 million children under the age of 18 live in the United States. Many of these children have experienced illness and death of loved ones, disruptions in their education and care, limited social interactions with friends and family, and much more due to COVID. 

Developmental science has shown that children’s experiences influence their physical, socio-emotional, and cognitive development, and for those who endure significant adverse experiences, the harmful effects can be lifelong. Indeed, the United Nations deemed the pandemic a universal crisis for all children, with the most damaging effects being felt by those already experiencing disadvantaged or vulnerable situations. 

Children face systemic challenges that are magnified by the pandemic

Before the pandemic, American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN), Asian, Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ children and their families have endured discrimination and systemic racism, which has limited their access to resources and opportunities to participate in society fully. Such experiences affect their living conditions, access to quality education and medical treatment, employment, family assets, access to healthy food, and exposure to clean water and air. Dr. Tiffany Yip, editor of the Society for Research in Child Development’s new Statements of the Evidence volume and Professor of Psychology at Fordham University, notes, “While many of these communities have been impacted in universal ways, the specific expression and manifestation of systems of oppression, and the extent to which they have been exacerbated during the pandemic, is unique to each community.” 

The statements illustrate how the pandemic has impacted children’s learning, health, and wellbeing in each community, and guides evidence-informed educational policies and practices to address their unique needs.  

For example, Latinx, Black, and AIAN children and their families are disproportionately more likely to face conditions that increase their vulnerability to COVID-19, including having caregivers in essential workforce occupations, relying on public transit, living in crowded housing, and having limited access to quality healthcare, food sources, and healthy living environments. Children across these communities have experienced unprecedented losses of loved ones due to COVID-19, while simultaneously enduring chronic stressors related to poverty, housing insecurity, policing practices, and deportations. Asian/Asian American children have also experienced elevated rates of hate crimes and harassment, and LGBTQ+ youth face barriers that are more severe than usual in finding health care that is orientated to their needs because of heavy demands on the health care system. These represent only a few examples of the experiences children from disadvantaged and vulnerable backgrounds currently face.

Policies aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19 may inadvertently cause harm to children 

Mitigation policies and programs may inadvertently worsen existing inequities for children in these communities. The closure of schools and the transition to remote learning could have a profound impact on children’s educational experiences and social support systems. Many children from these communities attend under-resourced schools that may lack the necessary technological infrastructure and teacher training support to provide effective distance learning experiences to their students. Moreover, children often have limited access to computers, WiFi, or dedicated space in their homes for formal learning, which can limit their engagement in distance education programs and interactions with teachers.

To compound the issue, caregivers are often less able to support children’s distance instruction and homework due to demanding work schedules, limited familiarity with the technology, or limited understanding of the educational content. In addition to formal educational programming, many children rely on schools for critical education services (e.g., reading, speech, and physical and occupational therapies), mental health services, and nutritious meal programs, which may be reduced or unavailable during distance learning. School systems also provide important in-person peer and mentoring social support systems, leaving many children feeling isolated in their homes and vulnerable to additional traumas and stressors during the pandemic.

Dr. Yip notes, “As developmental scientists, we know that childhood experiences have a direct influence on later development, and the educational disruptions that marginalized children are experiencing during the pandemic have the potential to impact subsequent educational and occupational attainment. While the exact impact of the current pandemic is unknown, our science tells us that prolonged disruptions have the potential to impact lifelong trajectories. As such, educational policymakers and leaders should implement evidence-informed policies and practices to address their unique needs now and mitigate the impact of the pandemic for years to come.”

Kelly R. Fisher is the director of Policy at the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD). 

Tags COVID-19 pandemic Education Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education Occupational safety and health

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