COVID-19 Safety: Is Physical Distancing In Schools Really Best For Our Kids?

physical distancing in schools for kids during covid-19

Whether you’re still homeschooling, or your kids are back already, or if you’re somewhere in between, what’s certain is that COVID-19 restrictions are hitting kids pretty hard. With a spike in suicide rates nationally attributed to isolation, and a lack of physical and social contact, many in the educational community are worried about the impact restrictions are having on the younger generation. 

The restrictions are clearly not just affecting their education, but having a significant impact on their happiness and mental health. So what exactly is causing the issue, and how can we best protect the mental health of our kids during restrictions? The exact answer of course will be manifold, but it is worth paying attention to the science regarding the effects isolation and a lack of physical contact can have on people, to better understand how we can work around this part of the problem.

a class of kids at school observing social distancing
With the correct use of personal protective equipment, even simple measures like surgical masks and using latex surgical gloves, it is actually very easy to imagine a school set up where kids can interact and indeed touch one another safely. If you add frequent testing to the equation, you can even imagine a scenario where even these health and safety measures like using nitrile medical gloves need be used sparingly, for example by teachers during certain activities. Perhaps isolating kids may not be a necessity in such a scenario.

Of course, problems relating to isolation and lockdown aren’t specific to kids: over the period from March to now, over 1200 suicides were recorded across all age groups. Compared to 200 deaths directly related to COVID-19, that’s a staggering figure. (1) 

But young people seem to be suffering more than most: one report published on the 7th August shows that cases of children presenting to hospital with self-harm injuries rose by 33% over the preceding 6 weeks. Lifeline also recorded a 25% increase in calls to their hotline over a similar period. (2)

young boy at school wearing face mask during covid-19

It is well known that isolation can profoundly and negatively affect mental health, but coupled with the uncertainty surrounding the future, it appears this is creating a particularly toxic combination. And it runs deeper than the social aspect: many believe that the lack of actual physical touch and tactile interaction is playing a part. Touch is an important part of human relation, provides comfort and is central to how we relate. We all suffer without it, as we benefit from it. Touch has been shown to lower stress hormone levels, alleviate anxiety and can even lessen the clinical symptoms of some diseases. Crucially, for younger kids especially, touch is crucial to development. (3)

So all of this leads you to wonder if physically separating our kids in school might actually do more harm than it does good. With the death rate for people under 45 nearly zero % (4) it could certainly be argued that separating kids in school has a negligible effect on their health, or their chances of getting seriously ill. Of course, the transmission of the disease needs to be managed, but we must factor in the negative effects of the measures in place alongside this. For example, Spain banned children from going outdoors.

child back at school observing social distancing

Bearing in mind the positive impact that continuing to go to school could have on their mental health and development, and the worrying statistics around self-harm and suicide, it seems that continuing to allow kids to attend school, as long as the proper safety measures are in place, is a more sensitive and empathetic approach than many of those currently in use.