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COVID recovery must prioritize the nation's youth

COVID recovery must prioritize the nation's youth
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The COVID-19 pandemic, like virtually every other major disaster, has had a particularly outsized impact on children. 

While children have been less susceptible to contracting COVID-19 and especially its more severe manifestations than adults, they can, in fact, get very sick. While very few COVID-19 fatalities have been reported in children, about 3 million have been infected, representing between one and three percent of all hospitalizations. 

Additionally, more than one thousand children under the age of 10 have developed a COVID-19 related illness cause called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children. Children can also be carriers of the virus and as such, are capable of transmitting to older, high-risk adults. Psychological and behavioral conditions are also increasingly prevalent in younger people. 

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But it is well beyond the direct health impacts of COVID-19 that create a high level of concern for children who are part of the pandemic generation.

For instance, over the past year the education of some 24 million children has been significantly interrupted due to pandemic-related school closures and the difficulty experienced by so many attempting to learn remotely because of lack of hardware and access to broadband. The revelation this week that school districts across the nation have witnessed a 2.3 percent decline in school attendance from September to November is a stark reminder of this growing concern. 

Clearly, the new administration’s focus on getting children back to full, in-person school is entirely justified — but it will require prioritizing vaccinating educators and staff and ensuring safe school environments. 

As it is, we can anticipate extraordinary educational deficits and great remediation needs for children whose schooling has experienced such profound disruption. What’s more, the pandemic has pushed millions of children back into poverty, with the child poverty rate climbing from 18.7 percent before the pandemic to 21.4 percent this August. Family economic struggles have exacerbated stress and uncertainty. Many regions of the country are seeing increases in domestic violence including child abuse. 

All of this has put additional pressure on communities to expand mental health services for children in communities, as well as to provide enhanced pediatric mental health programs. 

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While there are powerful needs related to the pandemic that must be addressed urgently, we also need to pay a great deal more attention to the needs of children before, during and after every kind of large-scale disaster. 

The National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute has been working with communities across the U.S. and in Puerto Rico since 2015 to help strengthen the resiliency of child-focused institutions to better mitigate and recover from any kind of disaster, including the current pandemic. As schools, social service institutions and emergency response agencies become more capable of standing-up coordinated efforts, the deleterious impact of calamities on children can be dramatically lessened. 

Here are five specific measures drawn from a series of issue briefs on children in disasters from NCDP that should be considered by the Biden-Harris administration to bolster resiliency among child-serving institutions to optimize protection of children during any disaster — and accelerate recovery in the aftermath. 

First, make broadband access universal in the U.S.  When the pandemic shuttered schools in March of 2020, nine million students lacked reliable access to broadband internet technology, mostly in rural communities. This is a significant problem in normal times, but a deeply problematic inequity that reduces access to education during and after crises. 

Second, it is time to increase access to mental health resources for children in the U.S. Of all health services for children, mental health care is among the most underfunded and is almost always in high demand during and after disasters. Yet the most recent federal relief package only included roughly $60 million (out of $935 billion) for children’s mental health. 

Third, food insecurity is frequently a problem in major, prolonged disasters. Indeed, it is estimated that 11 million children are experiencing hunger in the U.S. Nutritional stockpiling and distributions systems should be planned for times of crisis.

Fourth, in certain disasters, such as large coastal storms, floods and wildfires, housing losses may be extensive. Government should have robust plans to make sure emergency housing is available in every high-risk community.

And, fifth, emergency capacity for quality for childcare should be part of pre-disaster planning in every community. Increased economic pressures are pushing parents to seek additional work and social pressures create expanded demand for high quality day care.

The good news is that the Biden administration has already signaled its intent to support many of these priorities in its National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response proposal, including a focus on expanding broadband access for students in remote communities and serious interest in increasing emergency daycare capacity. 

But we need to go further. The objectives outlined above should serve not only as a blueprint for COVID-19 relief, but for all future disaster planning no matter what calamity has threatened the health and well-being of our children.

Dr. Irwin Redlener is the founding director, National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute as well as a senior research scholar. He is also a public health analyst for NBC/MSNBC and the author of “Americans at Risk: Why We’re Not Prepared for Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now,” and “The Future of Us: What the Dreams of Children Mean for 21st Century America.” Follow him on Twitter @IrwinRedlenerMD. Jeff Schlegelmilch is director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness (NCDP) at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and the author of “Rethinking Readiness: A Brief Guide to Twenty-First-Century Megadisasters” from Columbia University Press. Follow him on Twitter @jeffschlegel.