COVID-19 didn’t leave kids unscathed

Aschinberg: ‘Like any negative social event, kids who are most at risk bear most of the brunt’

Kindergartners at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Plainfield return to Kimberly Jurani's class with a newly checked-out book from the media center on Thursday, March 3, 2022, after exploring different book genres to celebrate Read Across America week. Even though kids often didn't experience mild illness with COVID, they had disruptions to their routines, school life, social life, and the uncertainty of ever-changing mitigations.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series that looks at effects of the pandemic on children.

Many kids who catch COVID-19 often now – and did during the height of the pandemic – have mild symptoms.

True, a small percentage of kids who tested positive also developed multisystem inflammatory syndrome. And some died, like Dykota Morgan, 15, of Bolingbrook.

One single mom with COVID-19 cut her hospital day short because she had no one to stay with her children.

But even when kids escaped COVID-19’s physical scourge, they lacked immunity from the pandemic’s other side effects, such disruption to their routines, school life, social life and the uncertainty of ever-changing mitigations.

Dr. Paul Aschinberg, a Joliet pediatrician who sees patients at Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox, said kids were overall resilient to life’s unpredictability. But some kids fared better than others, he said. And during the pandemic, babies and toddlers fared the best, especially if their parents worked remotely, he said.

“Because of the lockdown, many parents spent more time with their children,” Aschinberg said. “They didn’t take their kids to daycare because they got the chance to stay at home and work from home.”

Dr. Paul Aschinberg is a Joliet pediatrician who also sees patients at Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox.

Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention place the national death toll at 1,005,000 and 5 million more worldwide, the burden on children statistically was small comparatively to adults. Fewer than 1,000 of America’s toll were children 18 or younger.

But the virus cut a wide swath through the nation. The independent nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund ‘s annual report for 2021 noted that 3,168,274 total child COVID-19 cases had been reported, representing 13.1 percent of all cases.

According to the Defense Fund, children were 0.19% of all COVID-19 deaths in the states that provided data (Note: only 43 states provided data to CDF on the age distribution of COVID-19 deaths).

The long-lasting effects both physical and emotional are yet to be shown conclusively.

Some effects are nuanced. Some people feared babies wouldn’t glean social and emotional cues behind face masks. But babies still discerned and responded to smiles, even when the mouth was covered, Aschinberg said.

Strep throat and flu decreased in kids during 2020 when people stayed at home — as did the rate of kids in car crashes, Aschinberg said.

Adherence to immunization schedules also decreased in some kids. And chronic illnesses such as asthma and diabetes weren’t always tightly controlled, he said.

In a May 4, 2020, Herald-News story, Dr. Shelly Flais, an American Academy of Pediatrics national spokesperson and author of several AAP parenting books, who has offices in Bolingbrook, Plainfield, Naperville, North Aurora and West Chicago, said the danger of delaying vaccines could lead to other serious health consequences, such as a rise in measles, mumps and whooping cough cases, she said.

“Teachers are a huge front line in sounding the alarm when a child is being abused,” Aschinberg said. “And that was gone.”

However, the rate of anxiety and depression increased in kids, Aschinberg said. The “double whammy” was that remote learning prevented kids from interacting with their friends, he said.

Furthermore, in-person mental health services were curtailed or difficult to access, he said. Or services went remote, hindering the bond between the counselor and child, he said.

Even worse, some kids needing services didn’t live in supportive environments, he said.

“Like any negative social event, kids who are most at risk bear most of the brunt,” he said.

Timothy Albores, director of student services at school District 202 in Plainfield, said the kids who really struggled during the pandemic already were struggling before the pandemic.

“Kids, humans: we’re social beings,” Albores said. “When we have to isolate ourselves and keep ourselves home for safety reasons, it hurts our kids.”

Timothy Albores is the director of student services at District 202 in Plainfield.

Even before the pandemic, District 202 noticed a huge increase in socio-emotional needs of its students and offered programs and resources to address them, Albores said.

These included summer therapy groups and onsite counseling through Hartgrove Behavioral Health, text support, a social emotional support line and the ReferralGPS Counseling Resource Tool to help connect families to treatment options.

District 202 also partnered with Elyssa’s Mission to help students in sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades recognize the signs their peers might commit suicide, Albores said.

Among District 202 students, the program always finds “at least three or four kids with an actual suicide plan and the means and methods to carry out that plan that no one knew about,” Albores said.

What’s contributing to kids’ mental health struggles? Albores said technology, suicide and lack of proper nutrition and sleep all play roles, even before COVID-19 appeared.

“Kids are exposed to a lot more things than when I was growing up,” Albores said. “I couldn’t go to the internet and see someone decapitated or see some of the awful things happening in the world that I didn’t know about.”

NEXT: How three local families coped.