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COVID-19 and kids: What’s a parent to do?

Webinar hosted by Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Boston explores young people’s physical and mental health

Photo by Kristie Wook via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Continuing its series of outreach during the pandemic, the Cory Johnson Program for Post-Traumatic Healing at Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Boston on Monday hosted the webinar “COVID-19 and Kids: What’s a Parent to Do?”

Roxbury Presbyterian Church’s pastor, the Rev. Liz Walker, a former television news anchor, and the Rev. Dr. Gloria White-Hammond, a pediatrician and the co-pastor of Bethel AME Church in Boston, co-hosted a four-person panel:

Madoff said that more than 70% of Massachusetts children 12 and older have been vaccinated, about 30 percentage points higher than the national figure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The delta variant of the coronavirus “is spreading widely in kids and adults, but we are seeing less of it than we would if the [Massachusetts] population weren’t so well vaccinated … The higher the vaccination rate is for adults, the lower the rate of illness and hospitalization is for children.”

Dr. Larry Madoff

However, as White-Hammond pointed out, Black and brown children in Massachusetts [and elsewhere] are not beig vaccinated at the same rate.

That’s true, Madoff said. In Massachusetts, public health authorities are reaching out to the 20 communities most affected by COVID-19 with what he called an “aggressive vaccine equity initiative.”

Disparities among communities of color “is not a problem new with COVID,” Madoff said. “It’s a long and difficult problem we need to continue to work on. Measuring the problem is always the place to start, and we are making data available as widely as we can, particularly on racial and ethnic disparities.”

Asked what students are most concerned about, Callahan had an answer based on her experience as a pediatrician.

Dr. Jeanette Callahan

“It’s for kids to be hanging out with their friends,” Callahan said. “They want some semblance of normalcy.” As to the disparity in vaccination rates, “we know for communities of color what works is organizing and bringing folks together. We tap into existing relationships and we have had some success in increasing vaccination rates.”

The 52 community health centers that are members of the organization Curry leads serve one million residents in the Commonwealth, one in every two Boston residents. About one-fourth are children.

“When we find out we are [COVID-19] positive, all the fear comes upon us,” Curry said. During the 18 months of the pandemic, many people have elected to forego eye, teeth, even substance-abuse care they need, he said. “We tell our patients we need you to think of COVID-19 vaccines like any other immunization. Build it into your normal course of care,” Curry said. “We think that approach is working.”

While there are indeed children “who are jumping to be back at school,” others with social anxiety or who have been bullied at school need a plan “before something manifests,” according to Atkinson. “Set up a Zoom meeting” with principals and guidance counselors “and talk to them about what your child is anxious and worried about. Children love predictability. They thrive on it,” and “anything you can do to lessen the chaos will lessen their anxiety.”

Michael Curry

While there is plenty of online material available for the vaccine hesitant among children 12 and older, “I’d love to see specialized materials developed for different communities,” said Curry. “Some people believe the fake news they have seen online, and so it’s about convincing adults, too. Those of us who are families of color in immigrant communities, sometimes the children are health navigators for the family. The parents and grandparents may not have English as their primary language.”

“There is no single way with a magic impact. We’ve got to try everything we can think of,” White-Hammond said. A CDC checklist for parents includes information they need to know before sending their children off to school, including masking requirements and the protocols in place when a student or educator tests positive. It also helps, she said, to “mobilize teens so they can talk to other teens. We need more to pass the word from people who look like them.”

She said she’s noticed that many Massachusetts students are unmasked despite the current requirement. “It underscores the importance of vaccinations and adults modeling what [preventative measures] look like,” including masking and hand-washing. Sadly, she noted, “the symptoms of yesterday’s cold could be today’s COVID.”

Other pandemic woes

Callahan said she’s seen many young patients who have put on 10-20 pounds during the pandemic, the result of their more sedentary lifestyle. “Obesity is one we didn’t do well preventing,” she said, as well as “addiction to social media. I call it an addiction because kids respond to taking away their devices the way an addict would. I have had kids kick down the doors. … We are talking 10-, 11-, 12-, 13-year-olds who have become so attached to that way of interacting that it’s a big problem. Unfortunately, I have to come down hard and say, ‘You really do have to give that child’s brain a rest.’ Vaccines boost an immune system, but if it’s weak, you have to fortify the child’s general health and well-being,” which includes sufficient sleep and the use of good nutrition and vitamins. “These are all things that kids needed before COVID to build a healthy immune system to fight COVID.”

Dr. Fonta Atkinson

“Encourage expression and listen to your children, even for a couple of minutes each day,” Atkinson urged parents and those who care for them. “Ask them, ‘How was it to be back in school?’ Be attentive to their behavioral changes.”

Callahan said her colleagues have written about what teachers can do to take care of their own medical and mental health needs, “and parents can learn from these tips for self-care. The level of stress hormone is off the chart for parents. Keep relationships with friends alive and well. Begin to re-engage with your trusted few. Isolation has taken a toll on parents as well.”

The Rev. Liz Walker

“Go outside and take a walk,” Walker suggested. “It’s so beautiful outside” this time of year. “Breathe fresh air. You can do that socially distanced with a friend.”

Curry said his son recently completed his senior year in high school playing basketball while masked. He and his teammates “did it because they understood it wasn’t just about them. It was about their classmates and their grandmothers. We’ve got to highlight the teachers and schools that are doing this well.”

Oftentimes, what children want and need is reassurance, Atkinson said. “There has been so much fear and trauma and anxiety. Children want to know that in the end they’re going to be OK,” Atkinson said. “We have to be really intentional because this is a scary time, and kids take their cues from us.”

The Rev. Dr. Gloria White-Hammond

When God was calling Moses to lead the people out of slavery, Moses was at first reluctant, White-Hammond noted. God told him, “What’s that in your hand? The tools he needed were right there,” White-Hammond said. “We know and love our children. We’re confident in them, and they are confident in us. What we need to lead us through this difficult time is right in our hands, our own hands and our collective hands as a community. We will get through this.”

“We preach about Kairos moments,” Walker said, defining them as “a moment of great peril but also of great possibility.” That, Walker said, is surely where we find ourselves today.

Monday’s webinar will soon be available on this website, which also includes past panel discussions hosted by the Cory Johnson Program for Post-Traumatic Healing at Roxbury Presbyterian Church.

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