Editor’s note: For the latest news on COVID-19, visit http://bit.ly/AAPNewsCOVID19.
Much of the discussion at the AAP COVID-19 town hall on March 17 centered on how the pandemic has affected children’s mental health, what pediatricians can do to support patients and families and what the future holds.
As the omicron surge subsides, panelist Yvonne “Bonnie” A. Maldonado, M.D., FAAP, acknowledged many pediatricians are hesitant to breathe a sigh of relief due to the unknowns regarding the omicron BA.2 subvariant.
“The short answer is we don't really know what's going to happen next,” said Dr. Maldonado, chair of the AAP Committee on Infectious Diseases. “… So we'll be keeping track of this for you. But right now we don't have any alarming signs like we did for sure with omicron back in November right before Thanksgiving of 2021.”
What is alarming, however, is the learning loss students experienced when schools went virtual during the first year of the pandemic, said panelist Sara M. Bode, M.D., FAAP, chairperson-elect of the AAP Council on School Health Executive Committee.
“And that gap has not been made up yet this year, and part of that relates to the continued disruptions we've had through the omicron variant …,” she said. “So unfortunately, what we're seeing is not only are we not making up that gap, but we're having continued learning loss.”
Dr. Bode noted that 70% of the 50,000 students in a school district in her area qualify as chronically absent. She urged pediatricians to talk with patients and families about attendance and engagement in school.
“So it's not even just academics, but it's like are you connecting with teachers, with trusted adults at school? Is that a positive environment for you? Are you enjoying it? Are you going every day and prioritizing it? And do you feel safe enough? And if you don't, how can I help you?”
Panelist Carol C. Weitzman, M.D., FAAP, agreed.
“I think we should be asking people directly, ‘Are your kids going to school?’” said Dr. Weitzman, immediate past chairperson of the AAP Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics Executive Committee.
Pediatricians also should take a pulse on how everybody in the family doing. They can ask about students’ grades, functioning and friendships as well as about how parents are doing, whether they are working and if there are any issues that could interfere with them being available and present for their children.
It’s also important to look at factors that help people cope, including who they depend on and who depends on them, which Dr. Weitzman called “their squad.”
“I think we should be asking every kid, every parent, ‘Who is in your squad?’” Dr. Weitzman said.
For many kids, trusted adults like teachers and coaches are part of their squad, Dr. Bode said. “And when we went remote, they lost all of those people. So it wasn't just that they didn't get the academics. They lost their squad and their support network.”
Loneliness and isolation also “threw a massive curveball at our teens,” Dr. Weitzman said. “And the mental health issues that are associated with that construct, like loneliness and isolation, can be very enduring and very potent.”
Many teens have turned to social media to help them connect with others, but it’s also full of distortion and misinformation, Dr. Weitzman said. “It is both wonderful and toxic all at once.”
She advised against telling kids what to do but instead ask them questions like: How do you manage social media? Where are you getting information? How do you evaluate what you see? What do you do when you see something that upsets you? How do you know when to get off?
“Honestly, we need to help people learn how to unplug … and get out in the world and learn to be together,” Dr. Weitzman said.
The panelists also recognized that many pediatricians are tired and burned out.
“I think people are just really done with this phase of our lives. But the demands are still there, and there are so many people relying on us personally and professionally,” Dr. Maldonado said.
“So whatever we decide to do, let's do it with grace and empathy because we don't know what those people have been through, and they don't know what we've been through. And if we do that, maybe they will respond in kind, and we can only hope that things are getting better.”
The next COVID-19 town hall will be held at 7 p.m. CT on March 31. To register, visit http://bit.ly/covid19townhallseries.