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The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Children

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We are soon approaching the 3-year anniversary of the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Since its inception, the pandemic is responsible for 600 million cases and over 6 million deaths worldwide. It has also seriously impacted economic, social, and educational institutions all over the world. As a child development specialist, I and many of my colleagues have been asking a very important question: How has COVID-19 impacted our children?

Let’s talk about babies first. Last month, the journal Infancy published a special issue on the impacts of the pandemic on infants. The special issue featured 10 papers from researchers in countries across the globe—including the US, Canada, France, Switzerland, the UK, and Israel—providing us with a broad perspective on how the pandemic has affected infants from a range of backgrounds. The most notable finding from this collection of work is that babies were fairly protected from the direct effects of the pandemic. For example, several studies looked at the impact of mask wearing on infants’ learning. Altogether, mask wearing had no effect on infants’ language skills or socioemotional development (Sperber et al., 2023; Wermelinger et al., 2023), or their ability to recognize and remember faces (DeBolt & Oakes, 2023; Galusca et al., 2023). On top of that, other studies observed a normal increase in babies’ social responses to their parents over time (Shakiba et al., 2023), and that babies who had the opportunity to engage with both parents at home during isolation were actually better able to regulate their emotions (Rattaz et al., 2023).

Even though there was little evidence in the special issue that babies were negatively impacted by the pandemic, the same wasn’t true for parents. A couple of studies reported decreases in overall well-being and increases in anxiety and depression in the parents most affected by the pandemic (Reinelt, et al., 2023; Sperber et al., 2023). And while there were no direct effects of the pandemic on infants, parents’ mental health and well-being can affect infants indirectly. For example, one study reported that mothers who were more distressed during the pandemic had infants who experienced more emotional issues (Hendry et al., 2023).

The news for school-aged children wasn’t all that positive either. A new nationwide assessment by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, of reading and math suggests that last year, children’s scores showed the biggest drop that we’ve seen in 30 years. But importantly, there was no drop in scores at all from 2020 to 2022 for children who attended city schools; the drop was mostly there for suburban schools. And the losses were most prominent for the lowest performing students and students from underrepresented backgrounds, suggesting that the achievement gap that we already knew was there might have been widened by the pandemic.

So what have we learned? It is abundantly clear that the 1—2 years of remote learning caused by the pandemic wasn’t great for our kids, but kids can learn remotely if they have the right resources, and the kids who suffered most were the ones who were already at a disadvantage and didn’t necessarily have the resources they needed to get through these unprecedented times in terms of learning. Thus, we need to make sure that disruptions like the ones caused by the COVID-19 pandemic don’t widen the gaps that already exist in our education system, and that if we do have to go back to remote learning, that all of our kids have the resources they need to be successful. It also tells us that these students might need more resources now to help them make up for the time they lost during the pandemic.

We also learned that although it seems that babies (at least in this one special issue) did not necessarily seem to be experiencing too many negative effects of the pandemic, parents certainly are, which can affect their infants down the road. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that depression and anxiety in parents have long-term impacts on their children, regardless of whether parents are coping with regular everyday anxiety, or the stress of a global pandemic. So, emotional and mental health support during these stressful times is an important step we can take to protect parents, and it turns out, our kids too.

Research is a slow process, and we’ll likely find out more and more about the impacts of the pandemic in the coming years, but for now, let’s remember the children are resilient, and as parents, so are we.

For more information or to read these papers, you can find the full special issue (Infancy, 2023, Volume 28, Issue 1) here:

Vanessa LoBue, PhD, is an Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University-Newark. Her research focuses on human behavioral responses to emotionally valenced stimuli—specifically to negative or threatening stimuli—and the mechanisms guiding the development of these responses.

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