The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted each and every one of us. Children are no exception. Across the fifty United States, schools have closed, and in the midst of this disruption, there is a very real threat of loss and trauma. Parental unemployment is skyrocketing, and food insecurity grows every day. Domestic violence and child abuse are both on the rise. Unexpectedly at home amidst mounting adult concerns, children across the country are experiencing heightened anxiety and stress.
Although all children are at increased risk, the impacts of coronavirus are disproportionately threatening communities of color, low-income communities, and children from traditionally underserved backgrounds. While the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act takes important steps to assist families facing unemployment and financial insecurity, its broad-sweeping policies provide limited aid for especially vulnerable groups. Invisible communities, such as youth with disabilities, English-language learners, and those experiencing homelessness, are at risk of being left behind.
For low-income families, even despite the relief rebate promised through the CARES Act, both children and parents face increased harms from coronavirus. For the children in these families, this increased risk is intimately tied to school closures. When schools shut down, these students lost access both to free and reduced-price meals and to vital technology required to further their learning. While some school districts have made heroic efforts to extend these supports, the fact remains that many students simply do not have access to adequate food or to the materials required to continue learning.
In addition, these students are more likely to have increased stress at home, due to the disproportionate risks their parents face from COVID-19. Although unemployment rates have been high across the board, job cuts have most effected low-income earners. Even for those who do not lose their jobs, low-income workers are significantly more likely to be exposed to COVID-19. And among folks who contract the virus, the poorest patients are the most likely to not survive. Socioeconomically disadvantaged families unavoidably transmit these risks for economic and health harm to their children. Anxiety is high because the threats are real.
Children with Disabilities
For students with disabilities, too, learning and health have both been threatened by the coronavirus pandemic. Rolling out special education services via distance learning has proven particularly challenging. For many of these children, disruption to routine is deeply anxiety-provoking. In addition, the CARES Act generated significant uncertainty surrounding the level of supports families should expect during school closures. Many students have lost vital access to physical, occupational, and speech therapy, in addition to their academic coursework. No plan has yet been established to recoup these losses.
From a medical standpoint, COVID-19 also disproportionately threatens youth with disabilities. Not only are these children at greater risk of contracting the virus, but they are also more vulnerable to the loss of social and health system supports. Child abuse is already associated with disability status, and the risk of abuse has only increased with the rise of statewide stay-at-home orders. Additionally, overall access to non-COVID-19 health care has declined sharply in recent weeks. New parental unemployment makes cost a significant barrier, and broader restrictions on non-emergent medical care limits access even for families who can afford to pay. This means many children with disabilities have lost the majority of their outside supports simultaneously, even as financial concerns continue to mount.
For children who speak a language other than English at home, COVID-19 is deepening the existing inequalities that arise from language barriers. In addition to lost educational time spent learning alongside native English speakers, English language learners (ELLs) are at risk of receiving inadequate information both about the virus and about school and community responses. Too often, there are limited resources available in non-English languages. Without access to critical updates, ELLs and their families cannot receive the same learning opportunities as their peers.
In addition, children with undocumented parents face a particularly daunting challenge. These families are not eligible for financial relief, unemployment benefits, or job protections. Many avoid seeking medical advice when sick, due to fears of deportation. In the context of economic instability and pandemic, the consequences of these disparities can be lethal.
Children Experiencing Homelessness
Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic is augmenting the challenges faced by youth with unstable housing and those experiencing outright homelessness. With schools closed, these children now spend a much greater portion of their day outside, without access to a safe environment. Loss of free and reduced-price meals means issues of food insecurity are heightened. Further, inconsistent access to technology and other learning materials make keeping up with coursework next to impossible.
Coronavirus exposure risks are also much higher for these students and their families. Recommended social distancing guidelines are difficult to adhere to when simply staying at home is not an option. This threat cannot be ignored: as the economic consequences of COVID-19 mount, the number of children and families facing housing instability and homelessness will only continue to grow.
The impacts of COVID-19 have been widespread. As schools close, unemployment spikes, and stay-at-home orders limit public life, no one has been left unaffected. However, the cruelest consequences of this pandemic are following an all-too-familiar pattern: the children, families, and communities most often neglected and marginalized in the United States continue to bear the brunt of our collective hardships. The same systemic barriers that deny certain youth access to the resources they need to thrive in college, the workforce, and life have been reinforced by COVID-19. This virus is not an equalizer. Instead, it is widening existing gaps. We must respond, first and foremost, by acknowledging these inequities. Next, we must listen to the communities being impacted. Our role now is to elevate the voices of people of color, low-income families, children with disabilities, ELLs, and youth experiencing homelessness. They know what they need. We must hear them and then, together, we must act.