Ontario science table warns of potential for long-term effects from school closures

Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table has published a report on the potential impacts of Ontario's lengthy school closures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The science brief, published Friday, notes that schools have been closed in Ontario for 20 weeks from March 14, 2020 to May 15, 2021, longer than any other jurisdiction in Canada. These closures, the report says, are linked to widespread negative effects on children's academic achievement and physical and mental health.

"There is widespread consensus from families, educators, and children themselves that students learn better in person than online, and that access to online learning is a challenge for many due to technical, economic, or other barriers," the report states.

Some of these impacts could have long-term effects on children's lives, including reducing their lifetime earnings and, thus, taking a toll on the Canadian economy as a whole.

"Each month of skill loss is predicted to cause (an approximately) one per cent drop in lifetime earnings for affected cohorts and is estimated to decrease the national income by 0.5 per cent per year, which would translate to a GDP loss for Canada of $1.6 trillion," the science table said.

The effects of school closures are not universal, and the science table says evidence suggests are greater impact among students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, racialized children and youth, newcomers, and students with disabilities.

The closures also correlate with a decrease in reports of suspected cases of abuse and neglect.

The report also notes that there are substantial data gaps in terms of the effects of school closures in Ontario and more study is needed.

"Identifying or tracking areas where students are facing the greatest challenges in the wake of COVID-19 and implementing systematic supports to address pandemic-associated educational harms are critical to minimizing the overall impact and supporting recovery," the science table said.

Speaking on Newstalk 580 CFRA's "CFRA Live with Andrew Pinsent" on Saturday, Dr. Prachi Srivastava, who co-authored the brief, said there are three strategies that can help address the issues.

"The first thing we need is broad curricular reform for every grade in this province… to see what parts of the curriculum need to be lengthened in the current year, what parts may be shuffled to the next year and what parts from the previous year may need to be brought in," she said.

"The next thing you would need is remedial education for all. What we mean by that is boosting core skills. Usually, literacy and numeracy skills would need to be boosted in every grade. In addition to that, introduce psychosocial programming to deal with the harms children have encountered this year.

"The third thing one would need is to actually target more interventions and specific interventions for schools, communities and students who've had to face the worst effects of the pandemic and who may have vulnerabilities accentuated by the pandemic. That's what's we'd like to see across the board and for about two years," Srivastava added.

There were numerous calls to reopen Ontario's schools for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year in June but earlier this week, Premier Doug Ford said schools would remain closed to in-person learning until September.

Ford, citing the risk of infections from COVID-19 variants, told reporters on Wednesday that he did not want to risk a possible surge of COVID-19 cases in schools.

"It was a hard choice to make, but I will not, and I repeat, I will not take unnecessary risks with our children right now," Ford said.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said keeping schools closed until September would ensure a safer return to in-person learning.

Dr. Kathy Keely, an Ottawa pediatrician, told CFRA that a return to the classroom, when it eventually comes, should be as close normal as possible.

"For me, what's important is that school is a community of connection, where kids, especially in the early years, develop a joy and a wonder and use their curiosity and develop a love of learning," she said. "We need to engage the kids. We need schools to be joyful with colour, and music, and movement, and all the things to make kids happy and thus, want to learn.

I hope we don't just focus just on benchmarks of academic learning," Keely added. "They're important, but what's most important is the wellbeing and mental health of kids, parents, and teachers, so that we can develop a positive environment for everybody."

Mark Fisher, a trustee with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, also speaking on CFRA, said school boards and individual schools know their students best, but they will need help from the province.

"As a board, we know our students really well, through different surveys, but we need to really put a lot more resources into our school system if we want them to succeed," he said. "Not only in terms of picking up lost time and lost learning during the pandemic, but just to get them into a place where Ontario itself … has a student population entering the workforce that's going to allow Ontario to be competitive when we're benchmarked against our peers."

The school year in Ottawa is scheduled to end between June 22 and 29, depending on the school board.

"DOESN'T FEEL LIKE A GRAD YEAR"

For high school students counting down the days until graduation, the school year will end virtually.

Crystal Robert says she's been waiting a long time for graduation, but won't experience a final bell to end high school in-person.

"It's definitely very distanced. It doesn't feel like a grad year, it just feels like a weird pause in time," said Robert.

The Grade 12 student admits the lack of in-person class time this year has her worried for the future.

"I do worry that next year there could be some things that I do have to catch up on or do extra work," said Robert.

Grade 12 student Justine Deschamps says it feels like she's missed out on so much this year.

"COVID definitely took away the high school education that I should have gotten," said Deschamps.

Deschamps is also worried about the future.

"(Northeastern University) gave us a sheet of all the prerequisites that we should have known for calculus and I was running through it with my mom and we only went over I think about two thirds of what I should know for next year.” 

The vice-chair of the Ottawa Carleton District School Board admits it's not been the school experience they had hoped students would enjoy.

"That being said, I think they’ve shown great resiliency and strength moving forward," said Keith Penny.

Penny says all school boards must look to overcome the gaps in education.

"We’re doing studies and the provincial board of trustees is also doing studies to find out what the gaps are from not only a mental health perspective, a well-being perspective but also an educational perspective."