Barring major new outbreaks, school disruptions from the pandemic have passed. Federal and state governments have dedicated millions of dollars toward recouping the learning opportunities lost during school closures.
But a new report by the National Academies of Sciences suggests the recovery efforts to date have not targeted enough support for students who have lost family members.
The rise in family deaths and other disruptions could increase the “risk for a negative developmental cascade among traumatized and bereaved children who are already struggling educationally, leading to school failure,” National Academies researchers warned.
More than a million people have died from COVID and related complications in the last three years in the United States alone, with communities of color disproportionately hard hit due to systemic disparities in health care and other support.
The National Academies found children from racial and ethnic minority groups make up 65 percent of the 265,000 children who lost a parent or primary caregiver to COVID—and that’s not counting those who lost other family members.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also found death rates for pregnant women and new mothers from all causes nearly doubled from January 2019 to January 2022, with mothers of color also disproportionately affected.
The trauma of losing a caregiver can increase students’ risk of long-term academic and mental health struggles in school, researchers noted, including internal depression and anxiety and external behavior problems, as well as greater “household chaos” and financial instability for the remaining family.
In school, experts said symptoms of grieving could show up years after the fact, from physical symptoms like headaches or stomach pain (particularly in younger students) to increased depression, anxiety, or behavior problems.
The National Academies task force recommended state and federal policymakers extend family medical and social support programs targeted at the pandemic’s hardest hit communities, including Medicaid, the Child Health Insurance Program, and the Child Tax Credit, all of which were expanded during the pandemic but which may be cut back as outbreaks have eased.
“Across almost every outcome, low-income and racially and ethnically minoritized children and their families have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s negative effects, and without urgent, thoughtful interventions for their health and well-being, they will continue to bear it,” said Tumaini Rucker Coker, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine and Seattle Children’s Hospital, and chairman of the committee that wrote the report.
For educators, the report recommended providing home visits to families of young children, and doing more to identify and provide mental health services to students traumatized by the pandemic.