Schools are essential services – we can no longer disappoint children

As I wrap up another day in my busy urban pediatric practice, I can’t help but reflect on the recent pandemic restrictions in the wake of Omicron and those still looming in the weeks to come and what it can mean for children and families.

My interactions with parents, families, teenagers, most of whom are socially vulnerable, echo the panic and desperation around the possible fate of schools in the weeks to come. Many children in our community are being cared for by parents struggling with mental health issues and trauma further amplified by the pandemic and associated social isolation and job loss. Some subsequently face addictions, domestic violence as well as homelessness and are already struggling to cope with parenthood during the pandemic. They rely on schools to help them provide nutritious meals, respite, structure and safety that can be tested in the home environment.

The term “essential services” has been used throughout the pandemic, generally referring to services deemed essential to community life, health and safety. In-person schooling was not deemed essential. As a result, children and adolescents have been subjected to a recurring school experience over the past two years that has taken a toll on many.

As a community pediatrician in Ontario, I am deeply concerned about the children and youth to whom I provide medical care. I see firsthand the role schools play in mental and physical health. Most of the kids I follow have struggled during pandemic virtual learning, with some showing depression, severe crippling anxiety, suicidal thoughts. A patient told me he had no hope, nothing to look forward to. They stopped coming out of their room and started cutting out self-harm to distract themselves from racing thoughts. A number of patients were unable to participate in virtual learning. They wasted six months of school playing video games from morning to night. Some turned to substance use to ease their anxiety, a few ended up on the streets. A patient and a younger brother were not registered for the virtual school due to poor mental health of their parents and there was no follow-up regarding virtual school registration. Some families did not have internet access, others faced language barriers and parents were unable to understand the process. Virtual school is not an adequate option.

So I want to emphasize the critical importance of schools to my patients and their families and to countless others living across the province.

Schools represent nutrition and food security, with many of my patients attending breakfast programs, receiving lunch and snack supplements. Schools represent physical security and shelter, consistency and predictability for children whose home environment lacks these essential elements, not for lack of love or attention, but for lack of resources and support. opportunities, job loss and more, all amplified by induced trauma. by the pandemic. Schools are safe havens and safety nets in the community and ensure that children remain visible, especially in times of a pandemic when mental health, substance abuse and rates of intimate partner violence have all soared, as the have previously described colleagues and partners working in these areas. Family resources are already backlogged and depleted, including mental health and developmental services, and families have few supports to turn to. At least they can count on the presence of the school every day to help them be the best parent possible, to help with the resources that are lacking and to ensure that their children reach their full developmental, emotional potential. , social and academic.

Schools are an essential service for children and families in our community and it is imperative that they are open and ready to welcome our children back in January.

We can no longer disappoint our children and our families.

Dr. Elisabeth Canisius is a pediatrician in Hamilton

Michelle J. Kelley