ABC News Corona Virus Health and Science

Should schools reopen for students' mental health? Experts weigh in

Mental health experts say school is important for kids' developmental health.

"It is critically important for our public health to open schools this fall," said CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield. School closures due to the coronavirus pandemic have disrupted normal ways of life for children and parents, and have had negative health consequences for our youth, he said.

Although the CDC has said that scientific studies suggest COVID-19 transmission among children in schools may be low, many remain concerned.

The consensus of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and American Psychiatric Association (APA) is that they generally support the CDC's push to reopen schools for the sake of children's mental and developmental health -- but also caution that some communities where the virus is circulating should not reopen.

Experts agree that school has a tremendous influence on a child's health and well-being. Extended school closure can be very harmful to children's learning and the development of social skills. The need for in-person teaching is particularly important for students with heightened behavioral needs, the CDC warns.

The pandemic has created disruptions to daily life and children are feeling these changes deeply. While the return to school might be exciting for many students, others will be feeling anxious or frightened.

"Every child is different -- one might thrive with virtual learning and another might not do well," said Dr. Gabrielle Shapiro, chair of the APA's Council on Children, Adolescents, and their Families. "Overall the decision to return to school should be individualized."

"Whether we are sending students back for in-person school or not, we need to put emphasis on providing mental health support," child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Avanti Bergquist, an elected school board director for the Renton School District and a distinguished fellow of the AACAP, told ABC News.

"Kids pick up on their families' stress and anxiety," added Shapiro, who said it is important for families to find ways to cope with their anxiety in order to make a smoother transition to school for their kids.

Shapiro recommended parental support groups as an effective way for parents to come together -- virtually of course -- and help each other cope with their anxiety and address their concerns.

Mental health experts are especially concerned about the vulnerable population, including children with emotional, learning, and physical disabilities, as well as those in foster care or poverty, and for whom English is a second language.

The APA and AACAP both believe that fairness and equity require that there be sufficient access to equipment, services and technology to address systemic or cultural disadvantages and provide educational and mental health support.

"The mental health need of students were not being met in school before COVID, and have only amplified since," said Bergquist.

Schools in lower socioeconomic communities are often underfunded and are more likely to be overcrowded, have poor ventilation systems, and have less money for cleaning supplies or face masks. In addition, students might lack access to a school nurse, mental health counseling, and additional health screenings that will be required upon reopening, putting these communities at greater physical and mental risk.

If schools are to reopen in all communities, "additional financial support to schools and the community is needed for a safe and supportive educational process," according to the APA. "This increase in funding should address the requirements necessary to create a safe environment to ensure a full array of education and mental health supports," the medical association said.

With the ongoing talk of integrating mental health education as part of the curriculum in schools, Dr. Shapiro believes that "now is our golden opportunity to do so." With so many people traumatized due to COVID-19, "this is our opportunity to teach our children what depression or anxiety is and to how to look for signs of stress in each other," said Shapiro, who believes that "families are now more than ever open to talking about mental health problems."

The mental health of students must be continually assessed because mental health is an integral part of overall health and well-being, experts say. This includes the opportunity for mental health care for all educators and school staff, as well as parents who are teaching at home.

In a joint statement, the APA and AACAP said that "in these uncertain times, making educational decisions based on science and community circumstances ensures the mental health needs of our children and adolescents are being addressed, allowing them to feel engaged, safe, secure, supported, and loved."

For parents, "it is important to give ourselves grace," Bergquist said. "This is an unimaginable time and experience. We are doing the best we can."

Yalda Safai, M.D., M.P.H., is a psychiatry resident in New York City and a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.

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