About 40,000 kids in America have lost at least one parent to COVID-19.
That’s a 20% increase in the number of children who lose a parent in a typical year, absent a pandemic, and a number that will continue to grow for months to come.
In a newly published report in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, researchers Rachel Kidman, Rachel Margolis, Emily Smith-Greenaway and Ashton M. Verdery tracked the number of children ages 17 and under whose parent or parents died from COVID-19.
They also urged “sweeping national reforms” to address the health, educational and economic fallout of those deaths.
“Children who lose a parent are at elevated risk of traumatic grief, depression, poor educational outcomes and unintentional death or suicide, and these consequences can persist into adulthood,” they write. “Sudden parental death, such as that occurring owing to COVID-19, can be particularly traumatizing for children and leave families ill prepared to navigate its consequences. Moreover, COVID-19 losses are occurring at a time of social isolation, institutional strain and economic hardship, potentially leaving bereaved children without the supports they need.”
As of February, the researchers found, 37,300 children had lost at least one parent to COVID-19. Three quarters of the bereaved children were adolescents at the time of their parents’ deaths, and Black children were disproportionately affected, accounting for 20% of those who lost a parent even though they make up only 14% of the country’s children.
The number of bereaved children is likely closer to 43,000, the researchers write, if you factor in deaths that are linked to the pandemic, although not a direct result of COVID-19.
“For comparison, the attacks on September 11, 2001, left 3,000 children without a parent,” they write. “The burden will grow heavier as the death toll continues to mount.”
What are schools doing to address this?
As more classrooms across the country return to in-person learning, I hope the fact that tens of thousands of students are grieving the loss of a parent is top of mind for school officials tasked with determining how a typical day unfolds and what resources are made available to the children they’re entrusted to educate.
In the same way that safety protocols are spelled out — masks, social distancing, hybrid schedules, altered rules for gym class and lunch — there absolutely needs to be protocols for addressing the mental health of students who’ve spent the past year suffering through a pandemic. And, in a staggering number of cases, having lost parents or other loved ones.
When I talk to Chicago Public School teachers, invariably they mention their students who’ve lost parents to COVID-19. Benito Juarez civics teacher Daniel Michmerhuizen has a student who lost her mom on Christmas Eve, he told me when we spoke in January. A friend who recently left journalism to teach high school history told me last week one of his students just lost both parents back to back.
CPS has set April 19 as a target date to open high schools, the final round of reopenings in a district that serves about 340,000 students.
The crucial work of helping grieving kids get the support and accommodations they need should not fall solely on their teachers — although I hope teachers receive the guidance and training they need to help their students along.
CPS and other districts ought to be systematically beefing up the mental health resources in their buildings with the same urgency they are (hopefully) beefing up their ventilation systems and hand sanitizer supply.
For months — close to a year now — teachers and school board members have felt the heat from parents and other critics of school closures.
Over and over, students’ mental health is cited as a priority for getting them back into classrooms. It’s the No. 1 criticism I receive from readers when I write in support of keeping schools closed.
CPS officials and Mayor Lori Lightfoot repeatedly cite students’ mental well-being as a reason to open buildings.
Those concerns are disingenuous if they don’t factor in students’ mental health once they return to schools in person — once they’re inside a building that can and should be providing safe and trusted mental health professionals, plus teachers and staff trained in properly accommodating and guiding grieving kids.
If kids’ mental health is a priority — and it absolutely should be — we can’t pretend unlocking a building’s doors is enough effort or protection, particularly given all that students have lost in the past year.
The JAMA Pediatrics researchers propose a national response.
“The establishment of a national child bereavement cohort,” they write, “could identify children who have lost parents, monitor them for early identification of emerging challenges, link them to locally delivered care, and form the basis for a longitudinal study of the long-term effects of mass parental bereavement during a uniquely challenging time of social isolation and economic uncertainty.”
That’s a fantastic idea. In the meantime, schools need to step in.
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