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COVID: UCSF Expert Urges Return To In-Person Learning Citing Children's Mental Health, Suicides

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- With two months to go before school restarts for the Fall semester, Dr. Monica Gandhi is urging lawmakers, public health officials, and school leaders to return to full in-person classes, citing mounting evidence that it harms children's mental health and well-being.

"I am sounding that alarm," said Gandhi. "I don't think I could be any more clear that I think school closures have been harmful."

Gandhi is referencing a new study, scheduled for release Friday, in which she and UCSF colleague Dr. Jeanne Noble, have compiled statewide adolescent suicide rates. Early findings show for those under 18 years old, there has been a 24 percent increase in suicides from 2019 to 2020. However, for adults in that same time period, the suicide rate decreased 10 percent.

The alarming trend has been seen in Colorado, where Children's Hospital Colorado has declared a "pediatric mental health state of emergency". At their campus in Aurora, mental health emergency visits rose 90 percent from 2019 to 2021. Now, CHC in Aurora sees three to four children attempt suicide every week.

In Connecticut, at Yale New Haven Children's Hospital, there has also been a sharp rise in children seeking behavioral healthcare. In 2019, that site averaged one to two cases per day. In March 2021, it rose to an average of 12 per day. By May of this year, the pace more than doubled to 26 per day.

At Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford, Dr. Neville Golden, Chief of Adolescent Medicine, has noticed a sharp spike in cases involving eating disorders.

"And working specifically with young people with eating disorders for over 35 years, I've never seen this before," said Dr. Golden.

"This phrase 'resiliency, it's okay, everything will be okay,' I think it's been used much to the detriment of what we're thinking about in terms of children," said Gandhi.

Gandhi has been advocating for changes to the public health guidance regarding schools including:

  • Stop widespread use of antimicrobial cleaning products, which could lead to antimicrobial resistance
  • Removing plexiglass barriers
  • Stop taking temperature of students arriving on campus
  • Testing asymptomatic people only if case rates exceed 200 cases per 100,000 in the previous seven days
  • Revisit mask wearing if hospitalization rates fall below 5 per 100,000 and two-thirds of adults have been vaccinated
  • no masks when playing outdoors
  • space desks 3 feet apart, until hospitalization rates in the community fall below 5 per 100,000 people

"Please remember this is a completely different situation at any time we've ever talked about school openings. When you have low rates of virus in a community, you are protected by your own vaccination as a teacher and staff, and children are protected by the low community prevalence of disease," said Gandhi. "So keep on putting that into our equation when we discuss school openings. It's not at all like any other time throughout this pandemic."

San Jose parent Nikki Salha said she could not continue on with hybrid learning or virtual classes this fall.

"It would make me angry and sad. They're losing out," said Salha. " We can't handle another semester."

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