Dr. Kenneth Bramwell

Dr. Kenneth Bramwell speaks to the Caldwell School District board during the board's meeting Monday.

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BOISE — Another pandemic-altered school year is about to begin, and children continue to face potential mental-health challenges as well as the physical threat of COVID-19.

Positive screenings for depression in adolescents increased from 5% pre-pandemic to 6.2% from June to December 2020, according to a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Many mental-health challenges are a result of family disruption such as job loss.

Earlier this week, health professionals from the St. Luke’s Health System spoke about these challenges and others in a virtual news conference.

Many area schools, including the West Ada School District and the Boise School District, start in August.

“Most kids respond pretty well to changes. But the recent pandemic … has created a situation where we’re inundated with continuous changes,” said Dr. Brian Olsen with St. Luke’s Behavioral Health. “It adds that stress, making it harder to make successful adjustments.”

There are ways to help a struggling youth, according to doctors. Parents can look for changes in behavior or emotions, such as sleeping too little or too much, or being more irritable or guarded.

Olsen recommended getting “back to the basics” with good eating habits, sleeping or exercise. But it’s important to not make too many changes at once.

As the school year begins, parents can help students by modeling appropriate behavior and possibly getting support for themselves, Olsen said. Parents who need additional mental help for their child can check in with their pediatrician.

Children hear and can worry about the pandemic, the variant and the fate of their loved ones.

“It’s (COVID-19) a scary thing they hear about and they don’t know all of the information,” said Olsen, who added parents can help kids understand what is happening at their level.

For kids, having something to do outside of school can make the situation feel more normal, he said.

In terms of physical health, COVID-19 is an increasing threat to children. Idaho reported 780 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and the more-contagious delta variant is surging throughout the country.

The New York Times reported Monday that “Some doctors on the front lines say they are seeing more critically ill children than they have at any previous point of the pandemic and that the highly contagious Delta variant is likely to blame.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics have both emphasized the importance of in-person schooling and masking for all children, St. Luke’s Children’s System Medical Director Dr. Kenny Bramwell said.

“It sounds like we’ve pivoted from where we were hoping to land,” Bramwell said. “But it turns out that this delta variant is so overwhelmingly contagious that the best thing we could do in settings of concern is to mask everybody.”

The Boise School District Board voted to make masks mandatory for students, staff and visitors regardless of vaccination status, the Idaho Press previously reported. West Ada, Kuna, Vallivue, Nampa and Caldwell will start the year with masks-optional policies.

Children under the age of 12 do not have access to the COVID-19 vaccine and are more vulnerable. All the while, health care providers in the Treasure Valley said last week that they have seen a significant increase recently in the number of children under the age of 18 testing positive for COVID-19.

“The vaccine is our greatest tool in this pandemic,” Bramwell said. “When we do not have the vaccine available, we are left with second-team options, and those include masking, distancing and room hygiene and air hygiene.”

Carolyn Komatsoulis covers Meridian and Ada County. Contact her at 208-465-8107 and follow her on Twitter @CKomatsoulis.

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