Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Worayuth Kamonsuwan

Six-year-old Leila Maki has an idea. Instead of online or in-person schools, she would set up an outdoor camp, called the "I'm Growing Club," where kids could come and learn through games — after their temperature check. As Leila explains, it could be "a place kids can go, so their parents don't have to be with their kids while they work."

Leila's parents have struggled to cover eight-hour work-from-home days with Leila and her 3-year-old brother at their St. Louis home, and Leila has noticed. In a 10-minute Zoom conversation, she repeatedly emphasized, unprompted, that her club would allow parents to work. She's also aware of the risks of attending in-person school. At the I'm Growing Club, "it's kind of easier to not get sick from anyone. Because it's outside."

Kids across the country are now experiencing in-person classrooms, online learning or some shifting combination of both. As we continue to weigh the risks along with new outbreaks, new evidence and new strategies, it's right that we should be hearing most from the key stakeholders — those experiencing the consequences of ongoing decisions. Leila's parents and teachers, like parents and teachers across the country, are caught between a rock of earning a living and the hard place of health risk. But we have heard very little from one important group of stakeholders — children themselves.

Why have we silenced children? Like teachers, they're the ones who are being thrust into poorly ventilated classrooms and halls crowded with maskless peers. Or, they're the ones living out their childhoods in confinement, missing out on the important developmental experiences of hugs, care and sociality that come with physical proximity to others.

Leila has clear ideas about what kids need. The I'm Growing Club would mean choices, Leila says. "So the kids don't feel sad that their mom or dad said they have to do this." The kids who want to go to the club can, and those who don't can go to school or learn online, and kids as well as parents can choose. Choice, for kids, can mean having something in their lives they can control.

As our conversation with Leila shows, kids as young as 6 are aware of and affected by the hostile policy environment in the U.S. that has stripped the country of social support for families. Through the I'm Growing Club, she is trying to care for her parents, as much as for herself. Kids have their own concerns: the need to secure their families, to feel safe and to have choices in a world that is always telling them what to do. While the I'm Growing Club might not itself be possible, the needs Leila expresses can be met in other ways through thoughtful policy. We just need to hear, interpret and translate those needs into appropriate action.

As parents know, this pandemic has been hard on kids, and the substantive change to in-person schooling is one of the toughest challenges. Beyond education, the spaces and relationships and resources of school — that quiet art room, that teacher who always listens, that one guaranteed full meal — are things that can make school a respite, a place of care or a place to meet basic needs. For some kids, school is the safest environment they'll have, even with the risk of COVID-19.

And yet, what if safety from stress, violence or hunger comes with the risk of sickness, family transmission or death? What would it mean for a child to feel great about shooting a basket in gym class, but anxious about maskless kids in the locker room afterward? What would it mean for a child to feel happy about seeing her friends, until her teacher tests positive and she wonders if it was her fault? What would happen for the kid who goes to school so his mom can work when he gets sick and they both feel guilty?

These are the questions our kids are now grappling with, whether or not we are asking them.

So why aren't we asking for kids' perspectives? Part of this comes from our social construction of childhood — the cultural ideas we have about who children are, what they can do and what they should or shouldn't be. In America, we think of children as vulnerable people-in-waiting who cannot understand risk or what's best for themselves (as if adults are doing this better!). We think we're protecting them when we shield them from difficulties or make decisions for them. But children's participation is a form of protection; as researchers in contexts of infectious disease, we have learned from children in New Zealand and Zambia that we cannot understand children's needs and account for them in policy if we haven't heard their perspectives.

Leila's parents never realized how much she'd internalized their stresses about child care and work until we asked Leila for her thoughts. Policymakers deliberating school protocols could take from Leila the importance of hearing and meeting children's needs, as they tell them, of giving children choices, even small ones, and the knowledge that policies that harm parents affect children too.

Imagine what else we could learn from children, if we just ask.

Julie Spray, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral research associate in the Division of Public Health Sciences, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and author of "The Children in Child Health: Negotiating Young Lives and Health in New Zealand." Jean Hunleth, Ph.D., MPH, is an assistant professor in the Division of Public Health Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and author of "Children as Caregivers: The Global Fight against Tuberculosis and HIV in Zambia." This piece was written for the Chicago Tribune.

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