With Long Island seeing a decrease in COVID-19 infection rates, Gov. Kathy Hochul ended the school mask mandate effective Wednesday.
This was good news for many kids who have been struggling to cope with a pandemic that confined them to their homes for months, then released them into a world of uncertainty. They’re expected to follow directions from parents, teachers and authorities — on vaccines, masks and staying safe. But adults seem to disagree on what to do.
All this is taking a toll on children as observed in the 20,000-plus clinic visits we had at Stony Brook Medicine in 2021.
We have been hearing concerns from teenagers who feel overwhelmed by the on-again, off-again directions on mask mandates. One middle-school student in Nassau County had a bout of panic and feared infection when students and teachers went unmasked in January after a court order lifted the mask mandate for one day.
Now, while some students are thankful to have the ability to show their full facial expressions for the first time in two years, some will have significant emotional reactions about fear of infection. Some may choose to wear their masks even after the lifting of the mandate.
The truth is, the pandemic has triggered individual thoughts and reactions in all of us. Unfortunately, adult disputes over science, vaccines and masks are dragging kids into confrontation and controversy in school yards and spaces they share with other children.
The uncertainty, isolation and restrictions have doubled prevalence rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents globally, suggesting the pandemic has been at least mildly traumatic to many of us. This increased prevalence has also been seen on Long Island with continued increases in demand for mental health services.
Such conflict distracts students and can harm the learning environment, already hampered by pandemic learning loss.
Students of color and those from economically disadvantaged families have already been disproportionately affected by remote learning. Educators have many challenges to manage in the coming years to recover the 4-6 months of learning loss. Increasing student conflict will only inhibit pandemic stress recovery.
But there’s reason for optimism.
Though the pandemic was a traumatic event where most people felt restricted from personal choices and control, there’s a great opportunity for children to build crucial and meaningful relationships with open communication with their parents. Families torn by decisions on school mask mandates should be willing to hear out their kids. Many elementary school students would be able to explain their preferences, ideas, and viewpoints to their parents with a fair rationale.
As children begin to recover from trauma, there is great emphasis on how choice and control reinforce their resilience.
While the pandemic presented so many situations that seemed beyond their and our control, it has also taught us the way forward — such as how vaccination reduces the chance of significant illness, hospitalization, or death; the importance of effective hand-washing; and how staying home when sick can help our children continue to feel safe at school, while being great examples of the choices students have within their control.
Trauma recovery typically ends with an enhanced sense of safety and stability.
As we move into this new phase of the pandemic, physical and emotional safety can come from effectively sharing decision-making, putting lessons learned to good use, and highlighting our examples of strength and resilience, instead of increasing tension and conflict.
This guest essay reflects the views of Dr. Wilfred Farquharson IV, a licensed psychologist and director of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Outpatient Clinic at Stony Brook Medicine.