SickKids report recommended smaller class sizes, increased resources
A group of doctors from SickKids and other children’s hospitals, along with epidemiologists, public health physicians, and a volunteer advisory group of teachers and parents, have created a report to guide school reopening in Ontario. Their overarching warning is that to open schools safely, the numbers of cases of COVID-19 must continue to go down, and community transmission must be kept to the minimum.
The authors also warned that attention must be paid to students’ mental health because of increased rates of depression and anxiety among young people. In responses to a survey by Children’s Mental Health Ontario, 59% of parents said they had noticed behavioural changes in their children since COVID-19, including things like drastic changes in mood, altered sleep patterns and persistent sadness.
The report also points to concerns about online learning, pointing out that « distance learning further disadvantages children and youth living in areas…where socioeconomic and language barriers limit access to quality online learning.”
Recommendations include small class sizes, physical distancing
The authors of the report made a number of recommendations, including:
- Prioritizing smaller class sizes to make physical distancing easier
- Maintaining 2 metre physical separation in high schools, and 1 metre in elementary schools
- Ensuring that teachers maintain a distance of 2 metres from students and other staff
- Adapting curriculum to permit expanded outdoor education
- Ensuring that schools have sufficient resources, including:
- trained screeners at school entry and health-care providers working with the schools (e.g. telephone or virtual support, on-site support)
- additional custodian and cleaning staff
- an expanded number of teachers, guidance counsellors, social workers, psychologists and support teachers
- Adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), hand hygiene supplies (soap and hand sanitizer) and environmental cleaning materials
- Resources to address “structural deficiencies, such as large class sizes, small classrooms and poor ventilation”
Creating a back-to-school on ramp to support a « gentle return » to school
A number of experts including the authors of this report, are advocating for a « gentle return » to school.
A proactive approach to school reopening is important in order to minimize the adverse mental health impact on children/youth. Where foreseeable, schools and school boards should make every effort to address known sources of distress and extend flexibility within existing administrative processes.
In a « gentle return » model, would include a phased-in approach, with students in different grades returning at different times. In Denmark, for example, students in the very early grades returned first, followed a few weeks later by students in older grades. A gentle return would also include a focus on students mental health, with the first weeks dedicated to activities that enable students to talk about and work through their feelings of what they have experienced.
School Mental Health Ontario has tips and resources for educators, families, and students to help to support student mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon they will be releasing materials to support the first 10 days back – in alignment with the idea that the return to school cannot be business as usual.