By Mike Renzella
The Haldimand Press
Many in medical community advocating for in-person learning
HALDIMAND—Following an extended two-week closure of physical schools, Ontario’s students will return to the classroom next week.
Haldimand’s Acting Medical Officer of Health Dr. Matt Strauss commented on the concerns being shared in the medical community over the latest school closure: “There is a broad consensus in the public health community that schools are the safest place for kids. It is difficult to quantify all the ways that school closure affects their health, but we have seen negative consequences in terms of substance use, physical inactivity, social isolation, learning loss, physical abuse and neglect, economic deprivation, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and self-harm.”
A recent open letter signed by more than 500 Ontario doctors addressed to Premier Doug Ford expressed concern about the “use of provincial school closures to control the spread of COVID-19,” citing the need to prioritize children and youth who have “experienced significant harms since March 2020.”
During the initial announcement on the two-week virtual learning period, Premier Ford said that the delay in opening the schools was to slow the spread of Omicron, but also a reaction to the Province not being able to guarantee fully-staffed schools with many teachers expected to be isolating after exposure to the virus.
While COVID is still seen as a mild illness for most young people, two children under the age of 10 who tested positive for COVID-19 have died in Ontario recently, with six infants hospitalized due to COVID at two pediatric sites in Toronto and Hamilton since mid-December. Reports indicate that more children could spend time in a hospital due to both the prevalence of Omicron and its apparent greater impact on airways rather than lungs.
Despite this, the open letter asked Ontario to join “numerous jurisdictions around the world” who have made a “commitment to keeping schools open.”
The letter in support of returning to schools listed the extensive academic, social, and emotional harm school closures have had, leading to “disengagement, chronic attendance problems, declines in academic achievement, and decreased credit attainment.”
It further states that youth in-hospital admissions related to mental health and eating disorders are up 55% and 30% respectively, emergency mental health visits are up 25%, and urgent mental health visits are up 20%, while it claims that second-hand transmission of COVID in a school setting remains at less than 1%.
The letter offered some suggestion on how to safely keep schools open, starting with a ‘test-to-stay’ model, whereby anyone exposed to COVID will conduct frequent rapid testing: “Frequent testing (e.g. every second day) of school-based contacts has been shown to be equivalent to self-isolation for control of COVID-19 transmission.”
We spoke to some local parents in the community about how they’ve coped with the fourth school closure since the start of the COVID pandemic nearly two years ago.
“My child did all online in Kindergarten. I sent them back for Grade 1 because they need social interaction in person,” said Abram Pennman. “I know the higher grades do fine as most of their work is textbook and research, but these younger grades it really doesn’t work.”
He continued, “A lot of their learning is interactive so the best most schools can do is create lessons out of computer games, which really doesn’t explain things well (a lot of the questions are cryptic). I don’t think this is the fault of the teachers at all but rather the government and board for not adequately developing a proper online learning system for younger children.”
Sandra Percy Young has a child in Grade 11 and sees school closures as an issue for all ages.
“These high school kids are going to struggle in post-secondary. Online has not worked for most. It sucks! We all had a choice last summer,” she said. “I would rather rapid test my kid three times a week than have him at home online. It’s not good for them socially, mentally, and frankly they are not learning the way they should at this age!”
Tracy DeBurgess praised her two kids, in Grade 2 and SK, for their resilience and for rolling with things as they come: “I have noticed a few things in the way they think that have been affected by the current world situation,” she said. “My kids have me take their photo each day before they get on the bus so that they get a ‘last day of school’ photo for their memory books this year. It is sad that they never know if it’s their last day of school.”
She added that when she gets updates and photos from her daughter’s class and later looks at the photos with her daughter, she zooms in on each child’s shoes to recognize who they are: “With masks covering their faces, the most consistent way for her to know who is who, is by their shoes.”
Chelsey Mullins-Gates said their child has not fared well with online learning, dropping from an A student pre-COVID to a B to C student in a virtual environment: “He is a kid who needs routine, schedule, and ‘normal’. He needs to see his friends, be in the school environment.’
As of Monday, class is back in session. The Haldimand Press wishes all the best to staff, students, and parents as they return to school next week.