Letter By A Teacher #3
Tuesday October 12th, 2021
My name is S. and I am writing to you today, not only as a concerned parent, but also as a concerned educator.
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, 5.7 million Canadian children and youth attending elementary and secondary schools have been impacted by school closures and the altered experience of schooling . Morally, I struggled with the shutdown of in-person learning. I expressed my concern for our children and youth with Premier Doug Ford, Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, Chief Medical Officer of Health at the time, Dr. David Williams, various Directors of Education in Ontario, my Medical Officer of Health, the Mayor of the city in which I live, as well as the union that represents me.
As an educator, I chose this profession to help children navigate life and its challenges. Never did I expect to watch them suffer through a crisis of both health and politics, like I have with this pandemic. It became clear early on that the loss of connections facilitated by school closures would widen the cracks for those already on a path to long-term disengagement, allowing them to fall through and be lost to the education system entirely . The Canadian Paediatric Society expressed its “serious concern over the extended school closures” to the provincial leadership of Ontario, arguing that education is a human right that “must be respected even under difficult circumstances”. They urged the government to take “every action to ensure the safe re-opening of all schools across Ontario without delay” . However, despite the cries from physicians, educators, mental health professionals, and parents, Ontario schools were closed longer than any other province, and rivaled for the longest school closure in North America.
Ramifications of School Closures and Pandemic Mitigation Efforts on our Children and Youth
By fall of 2020, the data was clear that it was an unforgivable mistake to close schools. The deep dread and concern that I carried was warranted and was painfully accurate. During the rotating closures, Canada had 200,000 kids who were ousted from all forms of schooling. They became known as the “third-bucket-kids”. They were not in a physical school, not in a virtual school, and they were not homeschooling or pod-schooling. Many of these students faced challenges of inadequate technology/internet, were stuck in abusive homes, or struggled with inadequate English or French language skills and were unable to keep up . In May 2021, Children First Canada declared a #codePINK – a term used for pediatric emergencies, calling for an urgent meeting of Canada’s First Ministers to take immediate action to address the crisis facing the 8 million children in our country . However, it appeared nobody was listening because school closures in Ontario continued in the spring of 2021 for the remainder of the school year. Below are some statistics that are a direct result of the measures put in place, with the myopic focus on COVID-19, rather than the overall health of our children and youth.
Toronto Hospital for Sick Children has seen a 120% increase in ER visits for mental health concerns .
Since January 2021, CHEO reported an “unprecedented” number of young patients admitted to the hospital “in the throes of severe mental health crisis that left them suicidal” .
According to Children’s Healthcare Canada, children’s hospitals are experiencing on average, double the number of admissions following attempted suicide, a three-fold increase in admissions related to substance use, and a 60% increase in the number of admissions related to eating disorders .
In Ontario, admissions for eating disorders were 223% above capacity in June for the province's five paediatric hospitals .
Data suggests that over half (57%) Canadian youth aged 15-17 have experienced a decline in perceived mental health .
1 in 4 youth experienced clinically elevated symptoms of depression and 1 in 5 experienced clinically elevated symptoms of anxiety during the first year of the pandemic .
Childhood obesity rose significantly. The greatest change was among children aged 5-11. Before the pandemic, about 36% of children 5-11 years old were considered overweight or obese. Now that figure has increased to 45.7% of children aged 5-11 .
A range of international studies have demonstrated that students suffered from sizable “learning shortfalls” in which they improved their skills at slower rates than would be expected given norms established in previous cohorts of same-age peers .
Parents to students with special educational needs indicated that the pandemic worsened symptoms of the disorders themselves and associated comorbidities .
The Impact of the Mitigation Measures on Students
School closures, along with stay-at-home orders, quarantines, and social distancing recommendations that are intended to reduce COVID-19 cases are thwarting our children’s basic need to belong. This is increasing social isolation and loneliness, with added implications for academic achievement and wellbeing .
Cohorting, the quadmester system, and close contact isolation continue to diminish the ability for students and educators alike to heal from the trauma of the pandemic.
Supporting school-based spaces for quality social interactions and meaningful play is an important post-pandemic recovery strategy. There is a growing body of research to substantiate that informal school spaces- particularly the space of recess and lunch- are critically important social spaces for children and adolescents. It provides cognitive and academic benefits, opportunities for movement and physical activity, time outdoors in nature, opportunities for unstructured play, and opportunity for social interactions . However, these are the vital lifelines that have been disrupted in their lives as they strive to recover from the last 18 months. We must objectively examine the rules in place within the schools in Ontario and ask ourselves what the cost is to our children as a result of these measures. Nothing is cost free.
High school students are asked to sit at a desk for 5 to 6 hours straight. They either eat their lunch in a classroom or they have back-to-back classes with their lunch at the end of the day, often with individuals not in their cohort. It leaves one questioning why we implement the cohorting in the first place.
“Masks off, voices off” - Elementary school children are asked to eat facing the front of the classroom, and are told that they are not allowed to move or talk.
Elementary school children have been cohorted outside into a small space, and all that divides them from their friends is an imaginary line. Often they “meet at the line” just to be able to play together, defeating the purpose of outdoor cohorts.
Despite being cohorted, students are often crammed together in halls, busses, and during extra curricular opportunities, defeating the purpose of indoor cohorting.
Students are not allowed to throw a ball outside with friends despite the fact that we know infection occurs through respiratory droplets, and surface transmission is extremely low 
In some schools, young children are masked outside for recess despite the fact that outdoor transmission is responsible for less than 1% of cases .
High school students in some areas are masking outdoors for physical activity despite the low risk of outdoor transmission .
Young children are only allowed to use a washroom at specific times of the day due to cohorting rules, rather than based on need.
Children and youth are forbidden from singing, hugging, or giving and receiving a smile.
High school students are sometimes asked (depending on the teacher) to step into the hall to take a drink of water rather than being allowed to pull their mask down in class. Or they are being discouraged from eating despite having to stay masked and in a class for 6 hours straight.
Children and youth have been subjected to the cancellation of important rituals and rites of passage such as prom, graduation, class pictures, field trips, and religious sacraments. However, they watch the adults around them gather in stadiums, pubs and theatres at full capacity.
Unvaccinated children and youth are being isolated for close contact cases, despite the fact that in-person learning is not associated with increased prevalence or incidence overall of COVID-19 infection compared with the general community . It appears that no consideration is being given to the social, emotional and physical ramifications of such policies. Other countries who are doing the “test to stay” program to ensure minimal disruption to students, staff and families. Although better, I firmly believe we should not be testing healthy children ever.
Schools are allowing a student's vaccination status to become public knowledge when asymptomatic unvaccinated students are isolated due to close contact vs. their asymptomatic vaccinated classmates who can continue to go to school. This could lead to irreversible social harm due to bullying and segregation.
School boards and public health officials have been given the power to implement their own rules and regulations despite direction from the Ministry of Education. This includes but is not limited to: access to extra curriculars, mandatory vaccines for extra curricular activities, outdoor masking, use of facilities such as lockers and libraries, and the implementation of hybrid learning. This has led to an inequitable education system where one's city determines the type of educational experience they will receive. This also varies from school-to-school within the same city.
Parents are unable to volunteer or attend extra curricular events that their child participates in, such as being a spectator for their sporting events. However, it is safe to watch professional sporting events on the weekend with less safety measures in place and thousands more spectators. Parents can also act as an unqualified supply teacher within their child’s school, but are forbidden from entering for the purpose of supporting their child's educational journey.
For the sake of the third-bucket-kids, as well as the immense number of Canadian students who have fallen behind in their intellectual and social growth, we must look at removing mitigation practices that carry immense risk vs. benefit. The current school year needs to restore the routine, standards, fun, play, friendship and ambition of Canadian schooling, at primary and secondary levels alike. They are not at school to “stay safe” but rather, they are there to dream big, work hard, learn well, and prepare for a difficult but brighter tomorrow. Nothing short of high-energy schooling will help dislodge the third-bucket-kids, as well as the majority of our children and youth who are struggling from their position of hopelessness . They are caught in a constant loop of uncertain and inconsistent darkness. Students need predictability, and education needs to be equitable and consistent. As an educator on the frontline of the mental health crisis that is unfolding, I am deeply concerned about the way in which my students are suffering in silence. It is my moral obligation as an educator to be a voice for the voiceless.
The Image of Children and Youth as “Vectors” of Disease
I am also concerned about the dehumanising rhetoric that has been woven into our society, about children being the driving force behind the transmissibility of COVID-19.
Kids are not the “vectors” they have been made out to be. Schools are not infection hubs .
Our children are, however, suffering from a bubbling mental health crisis. The way in which we have blamed and shamed our youth for their actions since the start of the pandemic has contributed immensely to their mental well-being unravelling at a rapid rate. The subtle ways in which this is done must end immediately. This idea that our children and youth are the primary vectors of this disease is scientifically inaccurate, unfair and is worsening the psychological impact on young people. The day-to-day life within schools which is centred around COVID-19 protocols, is planting seeds of trauma in our children. It is time we take a look at the way in which we are reinforcing this traumatic experience daily, and realize that it is slowly destroying our kids.
Students are asked by educators several times a day to complete a COVID-19 screening despite the fact that parents and students are aware of the symptoms to watch out for.
Students are asked to sanitize their hands to the point that their hands are raw.
A spectacle is made of children who show symptoms at school. They are ushered away to an isolation room in front of their peers, and the classroom is emptied so it can be cleaned. This can lead to targeted name calling and social isolation upon their return to school. It can also lead to anxiety in the children within the class as they now worry they have been exposed to COVID-19 and may end up in isolation as a result.
Students must walk in specific directions in the halls even though COVID-19 is transmitted through aerosols and does not obey directional arrows .
Students are constantly reminded to wear a mask or to adjust it so it is on properly. Rarely is consideration given to the detrimental effects of masking children for extended periods, such as the potential significant effects on children’s social interactions with their peers and their ability to form important relationships with educators .
Students are asked to “quarantine” items such as projects and homework before the teacher will touch it, despite the low risk to surface transmission .
Students are constantly told to stay apart- sometimes with decals on the floor or a measuring stick to ensure distance.
Students are tested for asymptomatic spread while no other group of healthy individuals are being tested. Why is this happening in schools if asymptomatic cases have a transmission risk of 0.06% to 1.2% ? Is the message this is sending to our children and youth worth the minimal benefit?
Much of what is being done in schools is not backed by data. If we cannot have an honest discussion about simple questionable measures in place that cause more harm than good, how will we ever have the ability to discuss politicized topics that lack credible evidence of effectiveness, such as long term mask mandates? We must learn to have open discussions with all contributing members who are affected by these mitigation measures. We must be open to learning and growing from our experiences, as well as the growing body of data. We must make our education system a place where our children and youth can heal and move forward from the trauma that they have incurred. This means we must be willing to admit when we have made ill-informed decisions, and we must immediately start implementing measures that are rooted in emerging evidence.
Impact of Mitigation Measures on Educators and Support Staff
Many of the measures that have been put in place to minimize contact within schools not only have severe impacts on our children and youth, but also on the staff working within the education system. I am concerned that school boards and public health officials have a skewed perception of the day-to-day operations within our schools. Despite our efforts to enforce minimal contact between students, the rules in place allow students to gather unmasked over lunch hour, play on school sports teams together, and hang out after school hours. The measures seem more useful on paper than they are in the real world. It leaves one wondering if the countless hours educators and administrators have invested into implementing these extensive and exhaustive rules, have actually translated into a decrease in COVID-19 cases within our communities. The delicate balance of building relationships with students while simultaneously implementing substantial COVID-19 protocols, is straining students, educators and administrators to their breaking point. The focus should be on building healthy and safe relationships.
Working conditions that threaten emotional well-being have damaging consequences for educators, administrators and the students we serve. Educators as leaders can hardly pull other people together if they are falling apart themselves. Additionally, teacher well-being and student learning and well-being are interconnected. A Canadian Teachers Federation (2020) study of over 1300 members found that the percentage of teachers concerned about their mental health and well-being increased from 44% in June 2020 to 69% by October 2020. 37% of the teachers were “barely coping” or “not coping at all” . From my conversations with fellow Ontario educators, it is evident that the majority are drowning while trying to maintain a system that is faulty. If we want students within our education system to be well, the administrators and educators who work with them daily must also be well. Why is nobody asking how we can make it right?
Allowing Members to Have a Voice
I believe a key piece in recovering from this pandemic is giving a platform for administrators, teachers, support staff and parents to have a voice. It is vital that all affected parties have the opportunity to engage in open and honest dialogue. All members should have the means to articulate what is needed to move forward, and policy makers should be providing opportunities to listen to how all parties feel about the real world impact of the measures that are being implemented. For professional work to feel fulfilling, people need to feel trusted and be able to exercise judgements on behalf of those they serve. Collaborative professionalism has to be self-determined wherever possible, in relation to an agreed common purpose, within an empowered system of people working together . Without collaboration, we run the risk of perpetuating an educational environment that is rooted in shame, silence, and resentment. This will most certainly have long term consequences on our children and youth.
Educators have never had a platform to voice their concerns, neither with the Ministry of Education, the union they belong to, or the school board who employs them. When they do, they are often told that nothing can be done. If the frontline educators who bear witness to our children’s suffering are never invited to the table to have fruitful discussions on our dealings with our youth, how can we ensure that we are adequately approaching the recovery from the pandemic? A positive school climate is consistently associated with academic achievement, better mental health, and better peer relationships. We need to make intentional efforts to move forward together.
Parents are carrying an immense burden watching their child suffer through this pandemic. Their concerns are valid, and they too should have a means to vocalize them. They are trusting their child to our public education system, so it is time we allow them to speak on behalf of their children. Conversely, every time they do express concern, they are shamed and ridiculed for not blindly following along. This only furthers the divide between school and home. This divide severs the relationship with the school to which they belong. Real concerns over vulnerable children that are not being heard leads to challenges in the parents' relationship with school staff. These challenges can be intergenerational, where the negative experiences students have with their own schooling can carry over into their interactions when supporting their children many years later . Immense harm is being caused by the mitigation measures that are in place, as well as the lack of transparency with administrators, educators and parents. I worry for the well-being of students who are enrolled in publicly funded education, the educators who work with our youth, and their parents who care about them deeply.
Risk vs. Benefit
With every covid restriction in our education system, we must ask:
“How many severe covid cases will this prevent?” vs. “How disruptive will this be to normal child and youth development?”
Erring on the side of caution with the former means erring on the side of negligence with the latter . It is time that policy makers who make decisions about our education system weigh the health of students, staff and families through a holistic lens, rather than the myopic lens that has been used for the past 18 months. This narrow minded approach has severely affected our children and youth, their families, and those who work within the education system. Our children are not the immediate face of COVID-19, but they are the face of its future. This future may well involve lasting harm to a generation if we do not act now.
Children count on adults to be their advocates. They depend on us to act on inequalities they are facing. Our collective responsibility is to give them a voice by ensuring that their mental health is an intentional priority, both within and outside the academic realm . It is time that key stakeholders are invited to the table to debate the policies that are currently in place. There is a severe disconnect between the hypothetical dealings within schools and the reality. We must acknowledge that the mitigation measures in place come at an immense risk. It is imperative that we begin to implement strategies that hold promise and provide light. It is time that policy makers clearly define what is working and what is not, based on the large body data that we now have. They must also provide transparent metrics for the removal of all mitigation measures. Our children and youth need an off ramp. There is far too much at risk to keep implementing faulty measures, simply because it has become familiar to us.
When you strip children and youth of everything that makes their soul shine, they will seek an escape. Drugs, alcohol, gaming, violence, or suicide. We either rise and fight for them now, or we are all going to be “paying” for this for generations to come.
I am asking you to please consider the legacy we are leaving behind.
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