As a psychiatrist, and a parent of children who were once of school age, I think the rush to open schools needs a clear developmental perspective. Although the seriousness of infection may be less in young children in the short term, we do not know the full impact of COVID-19 on the developing brain or psychological growth. Evidence exists that this virus may have protean manifestations on the brain over time, with cognitive changes being of the greatest concern.
Many other viruses have known short-term, delayed, or long-term impact on brain function. Additionally, young children and even adolescents whose brains are greatly changing up until 25 or so, find it hard to be consistent in observing physical distancing as they yearn for peer connection and intimacy. The ability of teenagers to deny risk is well known in the extent of unsafe driving, drug use, unprotected sex, etc.
The balance between psychological, social, and educational losses associated with homeschooling and isolation and the risks for lifetime impairments as yet unknown is complex. Although we are making remarkable progress in terms of development of a vaccine and perhaps more effective treatments that will curtail the virus, we are only months into this pandemic. The rush to open up socially has already proved to further exacerbate the infection in states that prematurely allowed for public gatherings, and the denial of risk by those refusing to wear masks should serve as a cautionary note.
Dr. Marshall Forstein
The writer is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.