Here in Palo Alto, it feels like people are starting to return to church. It’s not like the pandemic has gone away. Here in Palo Alto, the Omicron surge has died down, but now we’re seeing a slight uptick in cases, probably caused by BA.2. Or caused by the lifting of indoors restrictions on masks. Or caused by hundreds of other random variables that we’re not aware of.
At the same time, we’re also becoming more aware of another public health problem — an increase in mental health issues among teens and children. Teen mental health problems began rising around 2009, but the pandemic prompted even more teen mental health issues. One probable cause: a rise in screen time. More screen time leads to more mental health problems. And the pandemic led to even more screen time.
I feel that our congregations are in a balancing act right now. On the one hand, we want to help control the virus, and we also want to remain accessible to people who are vulnerable to the virus. On the other hand, we know that our in-person programming can support positive mental health outcomes in children and teens. So we need to reopen to support good mental health, and we also need to promote COVID safety.
Right now, the Palo Alto congregation where I serve is reopening as fast as we can, while staying safe. We just figured out how to start offering child care for infants and toddlers once again. As the weather warms up, we’re seeing more preschoolers show up for outdoor play time — we had six preschoolers on campus this past Sunday, the first time we’ve had more than two since the pandemic began. We’re still not up to pre-pandemic attendance, but we’re getting there. And we’re still offering most of our programming outdoors, or in large rooms with small numbers of kids.
Reopening is a lot of work. But I don’t mind. It feels great having more people showing up in person again.