Physicians and practitioners throughout our community continue to sound the alarm regarding the mental health toll of remote learning. Just this week (Feb. 12) the Center for Disease Control (CDC) issued the following statement: “It is critical for schools to open as safely and as soon as possible, and remain open, to achieve the benefits of in-person learning and key support services.”
The amount of instruction time lost through the pandemic is staggering. Every week, Evanston Township High School students receive nearly 60 minutes less of instruction time with their teachers per subject. Over the course of 36 weeks of school, that amounts to nearly 10(!) weeks lost. ETHS has been recognized as a leader in remote learning, and appropriately so. Yet we have to face reality: Remote learning is diminished learning. The lost time is never coming back.
More concerning, however, is the hidden toll of remote learning and its contribution to an evolving mental health crisis, which eludes many of us due to the unfortunate stigmatization of mental illness that remains in our achievement culture.
Most children and their families choose to suffer in silence, due to embarrassment, judgment, and/or perceived failure. If our children are depressed or suicidal, did we do something wrong as parents to make them feel this way? If a child is “exposed” as having mental health challenges, are they ostracized or ridiculed by their peers? Why has there been a groundswell of physician and mental health provider concerns about the declining mental health status of our children, yet very few family anecdotes coming forth with these stories?
Just as health disparities have been exposed by the pandemic, so has the stigma of mental health. But the data is clear – adolescents are suffering. Compared to the same time period a year ago, the CDC reported a 31% increase in emergency room visits for acute mental health treatment from January 1- October 17, 2020 for children aged 12-17.
Our local community hospital has no room to accept any more adolescent patients for mental health services due to lack of further capacity. Private practitioners in our community continue to tell anyone who will listen that they are overburdened with suffering adolescent patients. Yet understandably, we parents conceal the individual stories. As a result, the decision makers at ETHS are not seeing the full impact of the crisis. If they could, ETHS would have reopened yesterday.
We are in a race against time. Remote learning has created social isolation, hopelessness, and despair, symptoms similar to child abuse. And with each passing minute, the mental health toll continues. In addition, teachers teaching remotely cannot perform a vital role that we have taken for granted for years: teachers are often the first to recognize the signs of depression or abuse.
We need to change course, deliberately but rapidly, to in-person learning. The Centers for Disease Control, the American Medical Association, and the Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend return to in-person learning as soon as possible – for these reasons.
Remote learning was a compromise thrown into our laps when the pandemic emerged, when we did not know what was safe. But now, we do know in-person instruction can resume safely, due to the experience of schools literally worldwide. The CDC has published these metrics, and the Evanston community meets every single one.
So please, to the ETHS School Board, Superintendent, and Administration, trust the data and move rapidly to in-person instruction, as every major medical organization recommends. And do it before it’s too late…..
Eric Chehab, M.D.
Shana Christian, M.D.
Virginia DePaul, M.D.
Cathy DiVincenzo, M.D.
Mary Hall, M.D.
Valeria Kimball, M.D.
Teri Merens, M.D.
James Olson, M.D.
Matthew Pellerite, M.D.
Melanie Thomas, M.D.