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We are in a crisis. Not just a health crisis, but a kid crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on nearly every aspect of our daily lives, the economy and our health system. But the most overlooked and forgotten are our kids, who have sadly been the collateral damage of a pandemic that has forced school, daycare and even playground closures during the most critical time of their lives.

By Ted Lempert

Special to CalMatters

And while the COVID-19 virus may be sparing their physical health, kids are increasingly experiencing child abuse, neglect, food insecurity, stress, social isolation and serious mental health issues – not to mention learning loss and a lack of preventive health care that will threaten an entire generation of children.

Now, on the International Day of Education and 10 months into the pandemic, we cannot afford to wait any longer to address the disproportionate impact the shutdown is having on kids, especially low-income kids and kids of color.

As Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature negotiate the state budget, we must prioritize every unrestricted dollar to support our kids and urgently reopen schools. And with an unexpected budget surplus, there’s absolutely no excuse not to invest in our children.

Even before the pandemic, California was not prioritizing kids. In a state that is the fifth largest economy in the world, California ranked a dismal 34th nationally in children’s well-being and 38th in education, per the Annie E. Casey Foundation 2020 Kids Count Profile. The current crisis has only amplified these issues and is widening the disparity between wealthy and low-income children.

According to ParentsTogether Action, parents from low-income homes are 10 times more likely to say their kids are doing little or no remote learning since the school closures. And studies from around the globe show children and adolescents are experiencing higher rates of depression and anxiety due to social isolation.

Even worse, since the school shutdowns, reports of child neglect and abuse have sharply declined as teachers are responsible for filing the greatest number of reports with Child Protective Services.

The situation is bleak for our youngest, most vulnerable population whose future is supposed to be bright.

We desperately need to get our kids back into school, and safely, before the situation gets worse. It’s mission critical.

FILE – In this June 9, 2020, file photo, California Gov. Gavin Newsom wears a protective mask on his face while speaking to reporters at Miss Ollie’s restaurant during the coronavirus outbreak in Oakland, Calif. Gov. Newsom’s administration on Thursday, June 18, 2020, mandated that Californians wear masks in most indoor settings as the state continues to battle the coronavirus.(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, Pool, File)

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a recommendation that “K-12 schools be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures have been employed and the first to reopen when they can do so safely.”

And the American Academy of Pediatrics has been vocal that returning children to school is imperative for their health and wellbeing. Even here in the Bay Area, more than 30 doctors from UC San Francisco recently penned a letter urging the reopening of schools by Feb. 1, as the closures are widening the achievement gap and taking a heavy toll on kids’ mental health which could lead to long-term trauma.

The time to act is now. Our state leaders must step up and coordinate an all-hands-on-deck approach to quickly reopen schools, ensuring they are safe for both students and teachers. Prioritizing teachers and school staff for vaccinations, guaranteeing frequent and fast COVID-19 testing, providing ample PPE and proper ventilation are all of the utmost importance.

Our most precious constituency, our kids, must be the state’s top priority. Newsom, the Legislature and our local leaders must work together to safely open schools now.

The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

About the Author

Ted Lempert is the president of Children Now, a national research and advocacy organization based in Oakland, TLempert@ChildrenNow.org. He is a former state Assemblymember and chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee.

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