Children’s health experts say they’re “deeply disappointed” that Ontario kids won’t be returning for in-person learning for the remainder of the school year.
In a statement issued Wednesday afternoon following the announcement from Premier Doug Ford, the Children’s Health Coalition said children and youth have not been a priority in the province’s COVID-19 pandemic response.
“As leaders in children’s health, we are deeply disappointed that Ontario has not acted upon the broad consensus for a regional re-opening of in-person learning,” said the coalition. “This consensus included children’s healthcare, public health, scientific experts and teachers’ organizations.”
Bruce Squires, president of McMaster Children’s Hospital, said Ontario public school students have only been in school for about five of the past 15 months.
“That’s more missed school than anywhere else in Canada,” said Squires. “Those harms to children and youth are real and significant. And they reflect the fact, the reality, that we haven’t paid sufficient attention to the needs of children and youth in the course of this pandemic.”
He said the focus now should be on planning for an equitable return to in-person learning for all students, as well as providing timely, equitable and easy access to mental health care for kids who have been struggling.
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Premier Doug Ford said on Wednesday that his government will be working with school boards and health officials to have outdoor graduation ceremonies for students in every grade this summer in order to make up for lost interaction among children.
Squires said that would certainly be a good opportunity for those youth to reconnect with their friends, but said it doesn’t go far enough.
“There’s no question that it is not sufficient to really allow for that re-engagement we’re talking about, with the structures associated with school and education that’ll position them better for the next school year and for the summer that’s going to emerge.”
Ford has also said some of the first things to reopen in Ontario will be outdoor activities like day camps and recreational activities.
“We will focus on getting kids outside, getting them to summer camps, day camps, sports — outdoor activities as soon as possible,” said Ford on Wednesday. “Activities that we know are critical to the mental and physical well-being of our kids.”
But Squires pointed out that camps and sports are not equitable, saying many of the children who are most dependent on a structured and supportive environment are the ones who can’t necessarily take part in those activities.
“While those are very good things that certainly we need to and will support and look to optimize, they are not the same as accessible in-person school to every child and youth in the province.”
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Hamilton’s public school board responded to the announcement from the province in a COVID-19 update to families on Wednesday afternoon, saying the board received the news with “disappointment but understanding.”
“This past week has been challenging without clear direction from the province on whether schools would return before the end of the year,” the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board wrote on its website.
“At HWDSB, we were ready to welcome students in June, but we accept this direction and will plan for a safe return to school in September. Parents and caregivers should reach out to their schools if their children are struggling and can also access supports through our We Help resources.”
The Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board also responded to the provincial announcement on Wednesday, saying staff are working on developing plans for the remainder of the school year.
“While understanding the need for caution, our Board of Trustees, like many medical experts and public health officials, had strongly advocated for a regional reopening of schools,” said the board in its statement.
“We did so out of our belief that subject to consultation with local public health officials, in-school learning is most beneficial to our students.”
During Wednesday’s COVID-19 update at general issues committee, the director of Hamilton’s emergency operations centre said the focus now is ensuring that school staff and students between the ages of 12 and 17 are vaccinated against COVID-19 in time for schools reopening in September.
As of Monday, public health said 9.6 per cent of all eligible youth in Hamilton have received at least one dose of vaccine.
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