How COVID-19 is impacting children around the world

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November 17, 2020
TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP // Getty Images

How COVID-19 is impacting children around the world

The return to in-person schooling this fall following pandemic-related closures provided children with much-needed structure and a sense of normalcy while taking some of the burden off working parents and guardians. But going back to school came with a heavy price: increased rates of COVID-19 among children and adolescents. In April, children accounted for 2.2% of COVID-19 cases across the U.S.; by the end of September, children made up 10% of cases, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The rise is likely due to children returning to schools, playing sports, and hanging out with friends. Schools that have continued virtual learning, or offered a hybridized schedule that is split between some virtual and in-person days, expose the technology gaps that have left students from vulnerable communities without essential tools needed to complete online lessons at home. Further, remote learning means more juggling by parents and guardians between work and childcare.

Children are affected by COVID-19 outside of schooling, too. Supply chain issues have created vaccine shortages in poor countries, leaving children at risk of dying from preventable diseases. Some children may also be at risk of homelessness and other dangers, as orphanages become short-staffed and foster families stop accepting new kids. Children also need to contend with the stress of living through a pandemic, which is affecting behaviors and making kids more irritable and fearful.

To understand the many ways the coronavirus is affecting children around the world, Stacker took a look at scientific research, news articles, government reports, and information from nonprofit organizations. Keep reading to learn more about the impact of the novel coronavirus on children.

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Millions of children miss out on school meals

The COVID-19 outbreak forced schools to close in 199 countries at the peak of closures in April 2020, according to the World Food Programme. As a result, at least 369 million children around the world missed out on meals at school—a sobering thought as cases have surged in November.

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Asylum hearings for immigrant children go digital

Despite attorneys’ requests to delay hearings during the pandemic, unaccompanied immigrant children threatened by deportation are going through the process of requesting asylum in the U.S. over video as part of a pilot program in Houston. Immigration attorneys have said that the pilot program lacks due process. Virtual asylum proceedings have also been riddled with technical difficulties. 

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COVID-19 affects children’s social development

Long-term social distancing measures can damage children’s social development, according to Healthline. Psychologists say that virtual social interactions don’t offer the same level of intimacy as in-person connections for adolescents, which could “dramatically decrease their opportunities for new experiences and self-discovery.”

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High schools canceled graduation ceremonies last spring

Some high schools in the U.S. postponed graduation ceremonies for the class of 2020 while others canceled them altogether. Students and their parents were “heartbroken” that their academic achievement may go unrecognized due to the coronavirus.

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Students lack the technology required to complete classes online

After being forced to close due to the pandemic, many school districts have switched to online instruction. However, technology gaps and financial difficulties are leaving some students behind. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, one teacher even reported that at least 25% of her students were failing to attend online lessons or complete homework because they lacked WiFi or had to spend time working or caring for relatives, soon after the switch to remote learning in April.

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More than 220 million children were confined to homes in China

More than 220 million children in China were forced to stay inside their homes in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The confinement poses potential risks to children’s physical and mental health, according to an article published in The Lancet journal. Stuck at home, children may be physically less active, have sleep disruptions, and eat less healthy food, warn researchers.

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Children show what they miss most in drawings

Amid social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders, kids around the globe experienced a universal longing for quintessential childhood experiences they’re missing out on. They drew pictures of the things they missed most: schoolmates, time with their grandparents, sports, flowers, and more.

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Child abuse goes undetected in the US

Reuters reports that calls to child abuse hotlines in the U.S. dropped by as much as 70% after social distancing restrictions were put in place. Authorities are concerned that the tell-tale signs of child abuse and neglect are going undetected while kids are home all day.

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Spain banned children from leaving their homes

Spain went on lockdown in mid-March when the coronavirus struck. The government permitted adults to leave their homes for certain essential reasons, like going to the grocery store and buying medical supplies. However, children in Spain were banned from leaving their homes entirely. After six weeks—and a great deal of protest from parents and experts—children 14 and younger were finally permitted to play outside for an hour each day with adult accompaniment.

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Orphanages face staff shortages

Around 8 million children worldwide live in orphanages, according to Hope and Homes for Children. The organization warns that staff shortages at orphanages due to the pandemic are putting kids at increased risk of abuse, harm, and infection.

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Adoptions from China come to a halt

Adoptions worldwide were put on hold due to the coronavirus lockdown, according to CNN. While some adoptions are now taking place, continuing travel restrictions and new hospital policies are making the already-difficult adoption process even more onerous.

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Foster children have nowhere to go

Some foster parents in the U.S. stopped accepting new children into their homes out of fear that they may spread the coronavirus to their families, according to The Marshall Project. Child welfare authorities worry that a lack of foster homes may leave some children out on the street or confined to overcrowded shelters.

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Kids’ screen time has skyrocketed

With children stuck at home and school lessons now being taught online, around half of the kids in the U.S. are online for at least six hours every day on average, according to a ParentsTogether poll of 3,000 parents released April 23, 2020, (the poll ran from April 16–20). Prior to the pandemic, fewer than 9% of children spent that amount of time online. Parents are concerned that the increased screen time could lead to addictions to social media and games, or that their children will fall prey to online bullying and exploitation.

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Children face greater risk of obesity

In a study by the Obesity Society published March 30, 2020, researchers warn that the COVID-19 outbreak is exacerbating risk factors for childhood obesity. The researchers say that school closures and stay-at-home orders create circumstances that are similar to summer recess, which keep kids sedentary and put them at greater risk of becoming overweight or obese.

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Hand sanitizer poisons children

The National Poison Data System received 79% more calls about children ingesting hand sanitizer during March of this year than in March of 2019. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is urging manufacturers to label hand sanitizer in ways that discourage ingestion, and to make the substances unpalatable to people.

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Childhood vaccinations are scaled back

Border closures and transportation issues related to the pandemic are creating vaccine shortages in at least 21 poorer countries, according to WHO General Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, citing data from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. New programs are being created to administer vaccines while adhering to best practices to avoid the transmission of COVID-19. The World Health Organization has warned that children around the globe will die if they can’t be vaccinated against measles, polio, and other preventable diseases.

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Hats in Chinese school uniforms keep kids distanced

After spending three months at home, children at one school in China returned to class with a new uniform that includes an unusual accessory: hats with a 3-foot-long piece of cardboard. The headgear is meant to remind kids to keep enough distance from their classmates to prevent the spread of germs.

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Children are regressing

Therapists in London are seeing kids exhibit signs of regression, such as bed-wetting and nightmares, during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the CamdenNewJournal. Some experts believe the behaviors are a response to isolation and increasingly stressed-out parents.

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Estonian children receive ‘thanks’ from president

Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid officially thanked the children in her country for their efforts helping to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. She reminds youngsters that their willingness to stay indoors more than usual is helping the country keep people protected from the coronavirus, as well as other diseases.

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Coronavirus pushes kids into extreme poverty

The United Nations warns that the economic hardship brought on by the pandemic may result in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children this year and increased infant mortality rates. It estimates that up to “66 million children could fall into extreme poverty” in 2020, on top of the 386 million kids who were already in extreme poverty last year.

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Remote learning students are receiving less teacher attention and support

As schools switch to remote learning models in order to protect students’ and teachers’ health, the students who are already vulnerable due to their families’ socioeconomic status tend to be further left behind. A global survey by humanitarian nonprofit Save the Children—covering kids in 37 countries across five continents—found that 40% of children from poor households did not have someone to assist with their schoolwork. Meanwhile, two thirds of parents and caregivers overall said their children had no individual contact with teachers since their school closed.

[Pictured: A child in Rotterdam, Netherlands, studies at home.]

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Remote learning students have more work but fewer challenges

Eight of 10 children attending school in remote settings have more homework than they did in their previous in-person classrooms, according to a survey by education assessment nonprofit Cognia conducted between April and June 2020 in the U.S. and 22 other countries. However, the majority of remote students, parents, and teachers all reported that assignments were either “new and easy” or “something already learned.” Teachers additionally reported that preparation for remote lessons was more time consuming than it has been in previous years.

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Children are at risk of permanently dropping out

Some children who lose support from teachers and programs when their schools close are also vulnerable to dropping out entirely. Save the Children’s survey found “2% of children reported that they would not return to school” when schools reopened after the COVID-19 threat is diminished. Save the Children additionally reported that, after West Africa faced an Ebola epidemic, school closures led to an increase in child marriage and other gender-based violence.

[Pictured: Children in Solapur, Maharashtra, India, gather around their teacher outside amid the pandemic on Aug. 27, 2020.]

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COVID-19 income loss is tied to household violence

When schools closed in the spring, experts worried that children in abusive family situations would be stuck inside, unable to speak out about their situations or receive help. Save the Children’s survey provides evidence for these worries on a global scale: the rate of household violence reported by children doubled when schools were closed. And, for the majority of the households where surveyed children reported that violence had taken place, the household had lost income to COVID-19.

[Pictured: A group of women who have suffered gender violence and have filed official complaints, live together with their children in a home enabled by the Spanish state on April 9, 2020.]

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Children with disabilities lost access to health care

Children with disabilities and other pre-existing health conditions are another vulnerable group disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. With schools closed and health care providers closed or focusing on COVID-19 treatment, it is difficult for these children to receive the care and support they need. According to Save the Children’s survey, 95% of households that have children with a chronic condition saw their health care access impacted by the pandemic, and 45% reported that their child could not access regular health services. For households that have children with disabilities, these figures rise to 96% and 59%, respectively.

[Pictured: Youth with special needs attend a class at the Fakhri Dabbagh Centre in the eastern side of Iraq's northern city of Mosul on March 4, 2020.]

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Exacerbated poverty leads to food insecurity

Both in America and other countries around the world, income is tied to families’ ability to buy food for their children. Save the Children’s survey found that 62%, nearly two-thirds, of the households surveyed worldwide faced difficulty in providing their families with healthy meat, dairy, grains, fruits, and vegetables during the pandemic. 52% of those food-insecure households reported that the cost of food items was prohibitive to their family’s health.

[Pictured: A child waits to be served food donated by the disaster management program in Newtown, Johannesburg, South Africa, on April 9, 2020.]

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In America, 60% of households with children lost income

Six in 10 homes with children have lost income, either through losing jobs, businesses, being furloughed, or having wages or hours reduced, according to a study published in September 2020, by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Unsurprisingly, 76% of those households are experiencing serious financial problems, which leads to stress for both parents and their children.

[Pictured: A woman comforts her 2-month-old child at Medford Family Life Education Center in Medford, Massachusetts, on March 27, 2020.]

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Risks for in-person school disproportionately impact children of color

While some parents grappled with whether to send their children to school or keep them learning virtually, other families had no choice but to send their children to in-person schools, despite the increased risks of contracting the virus. Those risks are higher for children of color, whose families are less likely than white families to be able to afford for an adult to be home during the school day. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll from July found that parents of color “were significantly more likely than white parents to say they were worried about their child contracting coronavirus due to school attendance and that their school lacked adequate resources to safely reopen.”

[Pictured: A woman drops off a child at Stark Elementary School on Sept. 16, 2020, in Stamford, Connecticut. Most students at Stamford Public Schools are taking part in a hybrid education model, where they attend in-school classes every other day and distance learn the rest. About 20% of students in the school district are enrolled in the distance learning option.]

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Children's behavior is taking a hit

The COVID-19 pandemic has touched virtually all aspects of life, and its impact on mental health hits adults and children alike. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that the stress of both virtual and in-person learning, disruption to routine, and strain on the family are resulting in a downward turn in children’s behavior. Clinginess, distraction, and irritability are common, as is fear in younger children.

[Pictured: School children are spaced apart in one of the rooms used for lunch at Woodland Elementary School in Milford, Massachusetts, on Sept. 11, 2020. Milford is one of the first school districts to re-open in the state, with a hybrid model, during the COVID-19 pandemic.]

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Parents may be delaying non-COVID-19 medical care

Declining rates of routine vaccinations, screenings, dentist visits, and outpatient mental health services point to the worrisome conclusion that parents are delaying the medical care they’d be getting for their children if there weren’t a pandemic going on. The Kaiser Family Foundation points to concerns about contracting the coronavirus, issues with cost, and potentially limited abilities of medical providers to treat as many patients as they did before.

[Pictured: Mothers bring their children for vaccination, at I.P. Extension dispensary, on Sept. 9, 2020, in New Delhi, India.]

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Children now make up 10% of US COVID-19 cases

In April, children accounted for just 2.2% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. But by the end of September, children made up 10% of cases, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The rise is likely due to children returning to schools and sports teams, as well as social activities like playing and sleepovers.

[Pictured: A boy has his temperature checked as he receives a free COVID-19 test at a St. John’s Well Child & Family Center mobile clinic set up outside Walker Temple AME Church in South Los Angeles on July 15, 2020.]

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Pandemic-related school closures will affect children for decades

A study published Nov. 12 by VoxEU used a model to calculate how COVID-19-related school closures could affect children later in life. Those findings indicated that for children kept out of school due to the pandemic, high school dropout rates climb 4.1% while the odds of attaining a college degree fall 2.6% and wage losses could drop by an average of 1%.

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