The COVID pandemic affected child poverty, mental health, and childcare access in Philadelphia

Mikayla Jones with her father, Felix Jones, an IBX award-winning nurse. During the pandemic Jones became seriously ill with COVID-19 and his daughter devoted weeks to helping him recover.
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Pressures have compounded for Philadelphia’s children since the pandemic began reshaping American life, especially from social isolation and households in financial distress.

A new report by an advocacy group seeks to highlight and quantify the harm children suffered through the most restrictive phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also urges federal policymakers to financial summary brackets that the group credited with lifting 16,000 city children out of poverty at the height of the pandemic in 2020.

“We have kids staying home with no adults, or kids who were safer at schools than they were in their homes,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of the nonprofit group now called Children First. “This was a horrible period for kids.”

The organization, previously known as Public Citizens for Children and Youth, issues a report on the state of child welfare every two years. Often, the reports focus on economic issues, but the most recent review found economic concerns and the pandemic closely linked.

Among the data points in the report:

  • calls to Pennsylvania’s confidential hotline, Safe2Say, for youth experiencing bullying, drug use, or mental health crises — as well as calls related to drug use, depression, suicide, and bullying — all increased from the 2018-19 school year to the next one, though they declined again in the 2020 -21 school year.

  • Teenagers’ mental health-related emergency department visits nationally rose by almost a third from March 2019 to March 2021.

  • In Philadelphia, 365 childcare providers shuttered from 2020 to 2022, according to data that Children First obtained from the state. This represents more than a third of all childcare providers in the city.

» READ MORE: What happened to those in poverty with the child tax credit expansion ended?

Mikayla Jones, a rising senior at Philadelphia’s Central High School, said the pandemic nearly derailed her future, which she hopes will include medical school.

When COVID first emerged at the beginning of 2020, she was a freshman with a circle of a dozen close friends. Then school campuses were abruptly closed in an effort to contain the virus. Two months later, her school had gone virtual. For weeks in 2020, she was consumed with caring for her father, who became ill with COVID. Her grades fell, and she often found it hard to focus on virtual lessons.

Even when school resumed, she found herself struggling to bring her grades back up and isolated because her group of friends had splintered. Two and a half years into the pandemic, she is now more introverted.

“I have grown to be OK with being by myself,” she said.

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Jones wanted to see a therapist at times over the past two years, but said she had difficulty finding an appointment, as have many youth nationwide.

» READ MORE: Tips from three Philly-area mental health providers about making sure your therapist is the best match

Jones is now interested in sharing her experiences. She is participating in a mental health panel at school to offer guidance to incoming freshmen and a panel Monday to discuss Children First’s report and its policy recommendations.

The data aren’t available yet to fully determine the academic impact of the pandemic, but Cooper noted preliminary evidence from Philadelphia is worrisome. Test scores show children in second to fifth grades declined in reading proficiency between 2020 and 2021, though changes in the assessment system could be a factor. Comprehensive statewide data won’t be released until the fall, Cooper said.

Younger children also were affected as day-care options dwindled. The cost of childcare in Pennsylvania is high — about $10,000 a year for preschool age children — the report found, and low pay for workers led to a cycle of closures and resignations that the industry is still struggling to overcome.

Tiffany Chavous, director of Somerset Academy Early Learning Center, said it became increasingly hard to staff her business during the pandemic. Workers were concerned about catching COVID from unvaccinated children, she said, and found they could make more with less training at service or retail jobs.

“We had to hire hiring agencies, which we’ve never had to do in the past,” she said.

With fewer childcare providers and fewer staff, parents can be forced to decide to stay out of work, leading to less income for families.

“We can’t get parents to work if we can’t get their kids to childcare,” Cooper said. “Socialization helps them [children] get ready to be successful in school.”

» READ MORE: CHOP’s only psychiatrist for infants is worried about the mental health of Philadelphia’s youngest

Children First points to a federal child tax credit as a significant source of relief during the pandemic. The program provided as much as $3,000 annually to households for each child ages 6 to 17 years, and $3,600 for each child ages 5 and younger.

This economic stimulus support led to a 16% decline in child poverty in Philadelphia, Cooper said.

“To see child poverty go down in the midst of a massive economic and health care crisis is shocking,” she said.

The program ended in December, and Children First estimated that more than 23,000 Philadelphia children could return to poverty as a result.

“We are the poorest large city in the country,” Cooper said. “It would be a clarion call for every person in this city that Congress needs to re-enact this.”

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