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Covid is having a devastating impact on children — and the vaccine won't fix everything

“We’re going to almost need a New Deal for an entire generation of kids to give them the opportunity to catch up,” one advocate said.
Image: Drawings of children alone in various windows, some looking at laptops, others have backpacks and wearing masks.
Preliminary data on the pandemic's social, emotional and academic impact on children are alarming, experts said. Chloe Cushman / for NBC News

It has been almost 10 months since Covid-19 began battering families in the United States, putting parents out of work, shrouding their homes in grief and loss, and shutting children out of the schools that taught and cared for them.

It’s all taken an unthinkable toll on children — a social, emotional and academic ordeal so extreme that some advocates and experts warn its repercussions could rival those of a hurricane or other disaster.

“Recovery from Katrina wasn’t a one-year recovery. We didn’t just bring the kids back and everything fell into place. And this will be the same,” said Betheny Gross, the associate director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, who studied New Orleans schools after the 2005 hurricane and is now tracking Covid-19’s impact.

A nation of children coping with trauma, illness and disruption will need more than a vaccine to address the fallout, she said.

“I don’t think we can just start school next fall and say, ‘Everything’s going to be OK.’”

To measure the effect this year has had on children, NBC News gathered data on a range of child welfare metrics, looking at what’s changed since March when the virus closed nearly every school in the country.

The numbers aren’t all bad news — drug and alcohol use among youth, for example, appears to be down, as are juvenile arrest and incarceration rates.

But, in other areas, preliminary data points to alarming signs that kids are in trouble:

  • Emergency rooms have seen a 24 percent increase in mental health-related visits from children ages 5 to 11 compared to last year. The increase among older kids is even higher — 31 percent.
  • Food banks have been slammed with hungry families as an estimated 17 million children — many largely cut off from free school lunches — are now in danger of not having enough to eat. That’s an increase of more than 6 million hungry children compared to before the pandemic.
  • Schools are struggling to teach students remotely or in classrooms in which children wear masks and sit behind plastic shields. One national testing organization reported that the average student in grades 3-8 who took a math assessment this fall scored 5 to 10 percentile points behind students who took the same test last year, with Black, Hispanic and poor students falling even further behind.
  • Classrooms have been unusually empty, with quarantines and sickness affecting attendance in face-to-face schools and computer issues interfering with online instruction. Some districts report that the number of students who’ve missed at least 10 percent of classes, which studies show could lead to devastating lifelong consequences, has more than doubled.
  • And an estimated 3 million vulnerable students — who are homeless, in foster care, have disabilities or are learning English — appear to not be in school at all.
Image: Cars at the San Antonio Food Bank
Vehicles wait their turn to collect groceries from the San Antonio Food Bank in Texas on April 17.Adrees Latif / Reuters file

It all adds up to a brewing catastrophe, said Barbara Duffield, who runs SchoolHouse Connection, which advocates for homeless children and recently found that, even as more families are at risk of losing their homes to eviction or foreclosure, schools are providing support services to an estimated 420,000 fewer homeless students compared to last year.

With schools closed, many families are weathering this crisis on their own, struggling in ways that could ripple through their schools and communities for years to come, she said.

“If we fail to address this, we’re just compounding trauma. We’re compounding loss,” Duffield said. “A student who is homeless, who has a disability, who has been traumatized by the racial violence we’ve seen this year, and then to be disconnected from arguably the only universal support system is disastrous. It means higher rates of suicide. Higher rates of depression, addiction, mental illness and physical disability, particularly for young children who are growing and developing right now. They’ll face more developmental delays leading to deficits in their education as they grow.”

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The children most affected will be those facing racial, economic and other inequities that have only become more pronounced since the pandemic began, David Hinojosa, the director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said.

They already lagged behind their peers in school, and already faced significant obstacles. And now they’ve taken the brunt of the pandemic’s pain, he said.

“I can tell you,” he said, based on studies and reports he’s reviewed, “that learning time has plummeted, that English learners are being shortchanged of the language acquisition materials and teaching that they need because it’s basically a one-size-fits-all approach, and that students with disabilities have been grossly neglected across the country.”

It’s only getting worse, he said.

“Children are frustrated. Teachers are frustrated. Civil rights advocates are frustrated and I think it’s reaching a boiling point.”

The massive displacement from school — not to mention mounting evidence that kids and their parents are increasingly experiencing depression, anxiety and trauma during the pandemic — is what has experts comparing the children of the pandemic to kids who’ve survived natural disasters.

And, as with such catastrophes, the nation will need a powerful, comprehensive response, said Billy Shore, the executive director of Share Our Strength, an organization that works to end hunger.

“We’re going to almost need a New Deal for an entire generation of kids to give them the opportunity to catch up,” he said.

As of now, he added, “we don’t even know what we’re going to be dealing with.”

Image: P.S. 7 in Queens, N.Y.
Children wait to enter P.S. 7 in Queens, N.Y., as public pre-K and elementary schools return to in-person learning on Dec. 8.Anthony Behar / Sipa USA via AP file

‘It’s heart-wrenching’

Before the pandemic began last spring, Mary Beth Cochran’s grandchildren were finally doing well.

The four children she took custody of five years ago — now ages 6 to 12 — had witnessed violence and drug abuse in their home, but with love and attention from their grandmother and their aunt, they were thriving in school. They had friends in their neighborhood in Canton, North Carolina.

Then Covid-19 started spreading. Cochran, 51, saw food prices spike in local stores just as the children lost weeks of access to free school meals. She couldn’t look for part-time work to supplement her disability check because she needed to supervise remote instruction. Money has been tight and her grandchildren — whose school partially reopened in October — have not done well with the turmoil.

One child, 11, became so anxious as her grades slipped, and as she’s watched her grandmother struggle to put food on the table, that she’s been pulling out her eyelashes — an old nervous habit.

Another, 6, who was recently diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, missed so much instruction when he couldn’t sit still for his online classes that his teachers are now warning he could be held back, Cochran said.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” she said. “They had come so far after all of that and then, boom, the corona hit and they weren’t able to get their education, the proper one-on-one time from their teachers or their counselors.”

IMage: Mary Beth Cochran and her grandchildren
Mary Beth Cochran says her grandchildren have struggled emotionally and academically. She's had difficulty putting food on the table. Courtesy of Mary Beth Cochran

In Detroit, Vanessa Burch, 62, is raising her grandnieces and nephews — five children, ages 4 to 14, who came to her with special needs due to fetal alcohol syndrome and a history of trauma. The children, who lost two siblings to accidental deaths before their mother lost parental rights five years ago, all struggle in school, she said, but the extra attention and services they were getting before the pandemic had helped them make progress.

Now, with their classes online, those services have largely ended and the family is grieving the loss of three relatives who died in the past year, including one whom Burch suspects had Covid-19. New grief has compounded the old, she said, leading to screaming outbursts from the younger children, and signs of sadness in the older ones, who now sometimes struggle to get out of bed.

It’s left Burch unsure about their future.

“Will they be able to function as adults?” she asked. “Will they be able to take charge of their own lives and do what needs to be done?”

She’d asked these painful questions before, she said, but “this just puts a whole new depth around it. Now it’s like, what is going to happen? Will they ever catch up?”

In Easton, California, Pricila Herrera’s family is now dealing with illness on top of other challenges. She, her husband and two of her three children recently came down with Covid-19, and have been coughing and exhausted.

Their oldest daughter, 17, who’s still healthy, has shouldered the weight of caring for her family, another burden on a teen who’s already had to help her younger siblings, who are 9 and 15, navigate their online classes since her parents don’t speak English.

The girl is overwhelmed, Herrera, 45, said of her oldest, speaking in Spanish. “She cooks and takes care of us since we are all sick. She has to do all of this in addition to the online school.”

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The family has spent much of the year sitting in a car, parked in front of businesses or their school in rural Fresno County in search of Wi-Fi to connect to online classes. But the children worry about assignments they can’t turn in on time because they can’t get online. And Herrera — an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who left her job as a farmworker when the pandemic began so she could stay home with her children — worries that the pay her husband brings home from his job as a mechanic isn’t enough for the family to make ends meet.

“Now that we’re sick, it will be worse,” she said. “My husband will be out of work for at least two weeks, so it’s less money for us.”

‘An ongoing traumatic event’

As the end of 2020 approaches, it remains very difficult to measure the true impact of an ongoing pandemic. Most public health and child welfare metrics tracked by federal agencies won’t include 2020 data until next year or later. And when that data is available, it could be flawed given the number of children who are out of touch with their schools and who aren’t seeing doctors because their families lost health insurance or are delaying treatment due to fears about the virus.

But there’s little doubt that children are reeling from this difficult year.

“Nobody has gotten hit with the mental health side of the pandemic worse than kids,” said Paul Gionfriddo, the president and CEO of Mental Health America, an organization that supports people with mental illness. “This is an ongoing traumatic event that kids have faced without the perspective of, say, 65-year-olds, who have lived through other kinds of trauma in their lives and have some perspective.”

Gionfriddo’s organization has seen about 10,000 people take its online depression and anxiety screening every day this year, twice as many as past years, he said, with the biggest spike among children between the ages of 11 and 17. The youngest group is also the most likely to report frequent recent thoughts of suicide or hurting themselves, he said.

Having dangerous thoughts like these doesn’t mean someone will act on them, Doreen Marshall, a vice president at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said. She notes that the high rate of youth reporting mental health challenges could reflect that parents are closely monitoring their children’s mental health and acting to help them.

“It’s always a good indicator when more people are reaching out for help,” she said.

But Gionfriddo worries that a generation of children will be living with the consequences of this year for the rest of their lives.

“We know that trauma builds on trauma,” Gionfriddo said. “Once people have experienced trauma, they are far more likely to have mental health effects later on, sometimes right away, sometimes decades later, and we know that repeated traumas can exacerbate and make that worse.”

That’s why Immaculate Ferreria is so worried about her youngest daughter, 13, who’s been wracked with anxiety during the pandemic, and her son, Quhaar, 16, who’s shown signs of depression as he’s holed up in his room in Sumner, Washington, unable to play football or see his friends and teammates. Quhaar’s grades are slipping in a year that will be crucial for his college applications and the canceled football season endangers the prospect of an athletic scholarship.

“I just don't want that talent to go to waste and I don’t know how to motivate him during this pandemic,” Ferreria said.

Adding to their difficulty, the family’s two-bedroom, one-bathroom house is now jammed with people after Ferreria, 49, learned that her 7-year-old granddaughter had become homeless during the pandemic and was living in a car with her mother. The child, her mother and the mother’s boyfriend, who were evicted from their home, moved in with Ferreria and her children.

Ferreria's oldest daughter, Yanava, 19, is also home, displaced from Howard University, where she’s a sophomore, so the house is crammed with four students who need to connect to online classes.

“It’s a whole challenge,” said Quhaar, an 11th grader. “Everyone’s trying to use the Wi-Fi so the Wi-Fi’s slow, which makes school difficult and that also isolates me in my room even more.”

He worries about the future, he said. “It’s frightening. It really is.”

Image: Immaculate Ferreria and her children, from left, Zonta, Yanava, A'Layla and Quhaar.
Immaculate Ferreria with her children and granddaughter. Quhaar, 16, at right, says the pandemic's impact on his future is "frightening." Courtesy of Immaculate Ferreria

‘There will be lasting consequences’

At Manatee Elementary school in Bradenton, Florida, principal Tami VanOverbeke is already putting the pieces in place to help her 560 students recover from the effects of the pandemic — but it won’t be easy, she said.

Most of her students are poor enough to qualify for a free lunch and many are the children of immigrants who don’t speak English. When school first closed in the spring, she estimated only about a third of her students managed to connect with online instruction and the number who came every day and completed assignments was just a fraction of that, maybe 5 percent, she said.

Her school reopened to students in the summer, but parents can change their minds daily about whether their children attend in person or online. That means teachers are never sure what to expect and students are a long way from the stability they need.

“School for many of our children is the safest place,” VanOverbeke said. “You’re loved. You’re fed. You’re cared for. And that went away.”

Image: Rover Elementary School in Tempe, Ariz., on Aug. 17, 2020.
A sign welcomes students returning to in-person learning at Rover Elementary School in Tempe, Ariz., on Aug. 17.Cheney Orr / Reuters file

Manatee has seen its rate of chronic absence, meaning children who’ve missed a dangerous number of school days, more than triple to 11 percent, she said.

That’s a common — and alarming — trend that schools are reporting across the country, Hedy Chang, who runs Attendance Works, an organization that helps schools boost attendance, said. Before the pandemic, 8 million U.S. students — or 1 in 7 — were already chronically absent, often a sign of difficulties at home.

“Even starting with chronic absence in kindergarten, they will not be reading on grade level by the end of third grade,” she said, citing research on likely outcomes. “They will be failing their middle school classes and dropping out of high school.”

Outcomes could be even worse for the so-called “ghost students” who appear to have dropped off school rosters entirely, said Hailly Korman, a senior associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, which published an analysis called “Missing in the Margins.”

Some of those children could be in private schools or have parents who are home-schooling them, she said, but many are likely just sitting at home or, if they’re old enough, working or caring for younger siblings.

“School closed some day in mid-March and that was the last time they talked to a teacher,” Korman said. “They never picked up a laptop, never logged into distance learning. They don’t have a phone that anybody answers.”

VanOverbeke’s school is luckier than most because it partners with community organizations that offer health care, tutoring and other services to students and their families on the school campus. But even here, she says, her students — most of whom are academically behind where they’d be in a typical year — face a long road before things return to normal.

“There will be lasting consequences,” she said.

The solution, said Hinojosa, of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, is not to put more on schools “and expecting them to make miracles” with the budgets they’ve had in the past. “That’s just so vastly insufficient.”

Image: Alexa Callander
Alexa Callander teaches a second grade class virtually at Rover Elementary School in Tempe, Ariz., on Aug. 17.Cheney Orr / Reuters file

What’s needed, said Miriam Rollin, a director at the National Center for Youth Law, an organization that advocates for marginalized children, is a “massive mobilization” of community leaders, elected officials, educators and parents to help children — especially the most marginalized, who’ve been affected most deeply by the pandemic — get back on track.

“This has been an unprecedented moment of hardship for so many Americans and the response needs to be on par with the level of hardship,” she said. She is calling for, among other things, a nationwide tutoring corps, an increased focus on how trauma affects learning, a sweeping effort to connect every home to the internet, and a major shift to community schools — programs like the one at Manatee Elementary where families can get social services in the same place where their children learn.

With initiatives like that, she said, the nation might even end up in a better place than it was.

“We have an opportunity here,” she said. “If we have the leadership and the intentionality and the resources to make solutions happen, this crisis could actually help transform our schools.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit for additional resources.

CORRECTION (Dec. 15, 2020, 1:04 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the estimated number of migrant students who have been missing from school. It is about 76,000, not 107,000.