I am writing this letter to implore you to reconsider the mandate halting winter sports. The inconsistency between the treatment of extracurricular activities vs the allowances made for shops, gyms, restaurants and bars needs to be addressed.
However, my biggest concern is the mental health status of our youth. We are putting the burden into the “easy target” - the kids; without any firm expectations on adults.
I run the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry unit at St Alexius hospital in Bismarck, and since the onset of this pandemic and the shutdown of schools in March, my unit has been at maximum capacity nearly every single day with adolescents who are depressed, anxious and suicidal.
My office schedule is likewise filled with children and teens who are having major issues coping with the loneliness and isolation brought on by at-home learning and the sudden removal of their coping mechanisms which chiefly include socializing with friends and participating in sports and clubs.
It is my professional opinion that completely cancelling all extracurricular activities for our youth will result in worsening of the epidemic of depression and anxiety that are already occurring in our communities. Physical activity and social contact are crucial to developing children and especially adolescents.
I have looked into many of these extracurricular activities and am of the opinion that the schools in particular are the most compliant to masking and social distancing rules. Schools have set aside voucher systems to allow one or two spectators per player, are not offering concessions or other places to congregate, staggering start times, and have made it possible to view competitions from home via live-streaming. In short they are going far above and beyond the call of duty by adapting this way.
The promise of participation is highly motivating for high school students to wear masks and social distance in the school and community. They know they’re under scrutiny and would be quarantined from their school and activities if they are exposed to a case of COVID-19 without a properly worn mask. To remove that motivation is likely to result in our students taking fewer precautions and possibly worsening the current COVID spread.
I’m also concerned that the inconsistency in consequences from “Wear your mask, play football” to “Too bad, we’re taking it away anyway” will result in a collective disappointment and emotional rebellion against the government’s indiscriminate use of authority.
I am absolutely on board with requiring masks and social distancing in the community and schools. However - extracurricular activities can be continued safely by following the exact same rules determined for restaurants, bars, and gyms. It is no more dangerous for 12 kids and a coach to be present in a full-court gymnasium than for 150 people to be walking around Target.
Non-sport activities such as art clubs and Lego Robotics easily lend themselves to participation with masks on, and add no further close contact situations than a regular classroom. This type of activity promotes socializing and brain development much more than what these kids will likely be doing if they are at home - namely playing video games and watching television.
It would be my professional recommendation that you allow sports teams to practice and other extracurricular activities to continue - by following the similar capacity rules set for businesses. Competition should be allowed without spectators as live-streaming is working nicely. The goal is to allow continued participation and preparation for return to action. The alternative - complete halting of all activities - will be devastating to our children and community.
Dahmen is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at St. Alexius Medical Center in Bismarck.