An Ottawa pediatrician is urging the Ontario government to reopen schools to in-person learning across the province, calling the situation “a mental health, physical health and academic crisis.”
Dr. Jane Liddle said with schools closed for Ontario’s two millions students since mid-April, problems facing youth have been escalating.
“We’ve had a 200 per cent increase in mental health crisis, be it suicide attempts, eating disorders, substance abuse, I mean these all have physical impacts [as well],” Liddle told Newstalk 580 CFRA on Sunday.
“We need kids back to school yesterday,” she said.
“We’ve seen a significant increase in obesity, increased health issues related to that. We also are seeing the opposite, linked to the mental health crisis, a severe escalation in eating disorders.”
Another local pediatrician agrees.
"There’s decreased motivation, there’s social and developmental stress, there’s a big impact on families which we are not really paying as much attention to," says Dr. Sumeet Sadana.
Liddle said without school, kids are losing precious development in an impossible environment, with the isolation and loss of social engagement the biggest drivers of mental health issues. All of this on top of an increase in screen time.
“The loss of the things that drive kids to be happy; their sports, their peer-connect...they’ve lost all of their extracurricular activities.”
She said conflicts in homes have also been escalating as parents try to do their best to do their own jobs while also being a parent and teacher at the same time, with that stress at home an added problem for children.
“The conflict in homes right now is just wicked.”
"Some children hav just given up entirely and the parents just don’t have the energy or tools to help engage their child," adds Sadana.
Liddle said for those between Grades 1 and 3, all of it is affecting “foundation” years and it means the foundations aren’t being built properly.
“These kids have lost their foundations, these houses will be built and they will crumble and they’re crumbling now,” she said.
“People say, ‘Well, kids are resilient.’ I’m sorry, that’s long passed. These kids are suffering and we need to get them back to school.”
"I think we can go along way to offering them a chance to recover and enjoy the last few weeks because they are missing it," says Sadana.
"It’s going to cause a lifetime of distress potentially, if we don't."
Liddle is part of the Ottawa Community Pediatricians Network, a group of 70 local doctors who banded together near the start of the pandemic to share practical information, and also joined The Canadian Paediatric Society this week in signing an open letter urging the province to prioritize reopening schools.
The letter, addressed to Premier Doug Ford and other provincial officials, said, “School closures and the resulting social isolation on the health and well-being of children and youth has become impossible to ignore.”
"Getting Ontario's students back into the classroom for the remainder of the school year and for summer learning must be a priority now."
Dr. David Williams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, said this week that the province was in a difficult situation trying to balance reopening and the COVID-19 risks with the mental health of students.
He said he has been pushing for school boards to being plans to reopen but didn’t provide a timeline for when that could happen. The COVID-19 Science Advisory Table has said schools could reopen in a “manageable way.”
Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious diseases physician at Mississauga Hospital told CFRA on Saturday that he saw no reason why schools could not reopen, but said he understood the need for some caution coming out of the third wave.
“In most situations, schools aren’t drivers of transmission, but when we were at the height and going up to the height of the third wave, when you have that much community transmission schools can contribute a bit, so it made sense to close them,” he said.
Now that Ontario is “well on the downward slope,” it makes sense to open schools, he said, even if it is for five or six weeks.
“It would be huge...I really think the government should reopen schools for the remainder of the year.”
Liddle said even a few weeks in the classroom would be massively beneficial to kids in the current environment.
“Kids need to have hope; they are absolutely hopeless right now. They are completely unmotivated, and you know these mental health issues that we are talking about are going to have lifelong impact.”