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Thursday, October 29 News

Woog’s World: We should be concerned about kids’ mental health, emotional development during COVID

My nephew’s second child was born in June.

In a normal year, I would have raced over to see him. I would have joined many other relatives, friends and strangers cooing over him. That’s what we did for his older sister, and that’s what human beings have done for and to babies, for tens of thousands of years.

But this is not a normal year. I waited a couple of months, before it was safe to see my great-nephew. As for what he sees, it is far different from what any infant has ever looked at before.

Early weeks and months are crucial to child development. Babies take their cues from the faces around them. We smile, trying to get them to smile back. (“It’s just gas,” my mother would say). We make silly faces, exaggerating our features. We talk nonsense, or kid-sense, being sure to articulate so they can learn language properly.

My great-nephew is growing up in a far different world. He is surrounded by people in masks. He cannot see their smiling, cooing faces. He cannot read their lips.

I think of the boys and girls who grew up during the Great Depression. Those men and women still with us are in their 90s and 100s. For their entire lives, they have been marked by their earliest memories. After decades of full refrigerators, they still worry where their next meal will come from. They still walk into a room, and flip a switch to not waste “the electricity.” They have never escaped the shadow of deprivation and fear.

As Westport children headed back to school last week, I wondered how the coronavirus pandemic would mark their lives.

It’s been six months since they were last in a classroom. Among the dozens of changes, some of the most noticeable were in those classrooms themselves.

Teachers who long prided themselves on creating warm, nurturing environments — roaming through desks in clusters, encouraging this student, chatting with that one, quietly reprimanding a third — suddenly faced rows of desks all facing forward, 1950s-style.

Classes were far smaller. Only half of all students are in school on any day — less, actually, because some study remotely full time. What must it be like to suddenly have so few friends around? And because groups and cohorts will not change, what does it mean to go perhaps the entire year without seeing more than half of everyone in their grade?

Cafeterias look, sound, even smell different too. The usual chaos has been replaced with staggered seating and Plexiglas shields. So much socialization occurs during lunchtime. Now, elementary school students don’t even have that; they eat at home.

Socialization, for better and worse, also occurs on school buses. These days, an enormous number of parents opt to drive their kids to school. The upside is that buses no longer stop every five yards. The downsides are that the streets near schools are clogged with many more cars. And children have one less chance to interact with their peers, at a time when they need all the contact they can get.

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New rules about singing have curtailed that popular activity. Theater directors who once welcomed hundreds of youngsters — a number of whom discovered a lifelong passion on stage, or behind the scenes — are unable to mount shows. Many other before- and after-school clubs and activities have also been severely curtailed.

I’m writing this several days before publication. One Westport elementary school already shut down for a day, when a staff member tested positive for the coronavirus. Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice acted swiftly. But, he noted in an email to parents, we must expect similar incidents to recur. “We are educating our students in the midst of a global pandemic,” he said starkly.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s adults. The older ones remember school and life before COVID. Those experiences will temper their reactions to the current crisis. Younger ones lack that frame of reference. And the youngest boys and girls — my great-nephew included — have not even begun their formal education. They are learning about the world from the people they see, and from the faces they can’t see.

Much of the world’s attention has been focused on the physical effects of this virus. We are rightly concerned about our temperatures, lungs and hearts. But the mental health, and emotional development, of our kids is important too.

I don’t know what it means for my great-nephew to be born into a masked, frightened world. But I sure hope that when he enters school the desks will be back in clusters, the curtains will rise on musicals, and the buses and cafeterias will once again be raucous, smelly and filled.