The COVID-19 pandemic has had a wide range of consequences for children and adolescents when it comes to education, social interaction, socioemotional development, physical activity and psychological wellbeing. Many of them will be able to overcome these consequences. However, others will continue to feel the effects of the deficits in the medium and probably long term.
With a view to counteracting this impact, the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina has published the ad hoc statement “Children and adolescents in the COVID-19 pandemic: Psychosocial and educational challenges and opportunities”, now available in English, and recommends the development and expansion of support and educational structures. These should address current inequalities in education and development in a sustainable manner, thus going beyond the mitigation of disadvantages caused by the pandemic to improve the situation with reference to the pre-pandemic status quo.
Inequalities and developmental risks existed before the pandemic, most specifically in the fields of education, social interaction, socioemotional development and physical activity. Mental disorders were the leading cause of disease burden among children and adolescents. The ad hoc statement outlines results from studies which also take into consideration the situation prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and consequently shed light on the burdens that have occurred as a result. The fluid situation only permits current scientific knowledge to provide a snapshot of the effects for children and adolescents and short observation periods further limit the validity. Nonetheless, the findings indicate where the need for short, medium and long-term action lies.
Based on scientific findings, compiled prior to and during the pandemic, experts recommend that educational institutions be kept open and in-person teaching is enabled with appropriate protective measures in place (such as mask-wearing, hygiene measures, regular testing), as this has proven to be the most effective form of learning for virtually all preschool-age and school-age children. “Due to the rapidly-spreading Delta variant, it is absolutely essential that protective measures are upheld and the guidelines concerning social distancing, hygiene, mask-wearing and ventilation continue to be adhered to, and that regular testing in schools is carried out. Medical masks should be worn in indoor environments at all times where it is not possible to maintain the necessary distance,” states Prof. (ETHZ) Dr. Gerald Haug, President of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. Simultaneously, digital infrastructure of the education sector should be accelerated and consolidated.
In the context of support and educational opportunities, the statement recommends the provision of long-term language support to help children learn the German language by using standardised early language assessment methods and by expanding the role of integrated language learning support in childcare settings. Primary school timetables should be adjusted so that priority is placed on helping pupils to make up for lost ground in the core subjects of German and maths, and provide additional support for lower-performing pupils at both primary and secondary level. Furthermore, additional information regarding support measures should be provided.
To improve on the previous promotion of health and motor development, experts recommend the development of an infrastructure which encourages physical activity among children and adolescents, ideally including daily exercise in preschools and schools and comprehensive programmes to promote a healthy lifestyle in regard to nutrition, sleep and physical activity. Awareness of psychological problems in children and adolescents should be raised among educational staff in preschools and teaching staff in schools by providing training and expanding existing school social work infrastructure. Outside of the school environment, evidence-based measures in child and youth welfare services as well as in evidence-based treatments for mental disorders among children and adolescents should be expanded further. Experts also recommend that therapy waiting times are reduced.
Head of Department Science – Policy – Society, Head of Berlin Office
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