Ontario government closed schools even after reality of COVID became clear

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Appeared in the Toronto Star, September 11, 2023
Ontario government closed schools even after reality of COVID became clear

During the pandemic, the Ontario government closed schools for 135 days, longer than any other province. And that number doesn’t include regional and individual school closures, or time lost when any child had the sniffles. Yet there was never any good evidence that school closures would stop transmission of COVID-19, which we knew early on posed almost no risk to children.

Were government officials well-intended, doing the best they could with no information? Perhaps, in the spring of 2020 when there was much uncertainty. But after the data rolled in showing the age distribution of COVID-19 impacts, it was very hard to make that argument. In fact, by December 2020, a large body of research showed that children represented two per cent or less of diagnosed COVID cases, and that cases in children were overwhelmingly mild and fatalities were very rare (usually accompanied by other conditions contributing to death). Yet provincewide, schools were closed on and off until January 2022.

But even if you thought COVID posed a risk to students, did school closures reduce COVID transmission? Most of the studies examining this question produced ambiguous results with low confidence in research quality. But pre-2020 research on influenza spread in schools offered no consensus on the expected benefits of school closures. More pertinent data based on SARS, MERS and early COVID suggested school closures were inappropriate. But again, the Ford government closed schools anyway.

One thing’s for certain—we knew that missed classroom time results in learning loss with life-long impacts including a reduction in lifetime earnings. And according to research, school closures compound absenteeism and adversely affect student achievement and social progress. But the government closed schools anyway.

It will take decades to fully understand the impact of COVID school closures on Ontario kids. But a preliminary look at student test scores shows notable declines. Comparing 2018-19 with 2021-22, Ontario average scores in all subjects declined in Grade 3, a crucial learning age. And across all grades, average math scores declined (notably from 75 per cent to 52 per cent in Grade 9). While there were other changes to math in Ontario around the same time (a new grades 1-8 math curriculum, the end of streaming in Grade 9, a shift to provincewide digitized tests), the province’s Education Quality and Accountability Office says the pandemic significantly impacted student performance in math.

What’s worse, some kids stopped attending school altogether. In 2022, the Ontario Science Table (a group of researchers that advised the government during COVID) reported a sixfold increase in severe absenteeism (when a child is away from school more than she’s in school) during the pandemic. And compared to older Canadians, youth mental health was hit harder, and the impacts are lasting longer. According to a Statistics Canada survey, for young Ontarians the top concern was not the virus, but isolation and loneliness. Both the Mental Health Commission of Canada and Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) found the youngest demographic experienced the highest levels of self-perceived poor mental health during the pandemic and the highest levels of moderate to severe anxiety, which peaked in January 2022.

And according to a CAMH survey of Ontario students in grades 7-12 in the spring of 2021, 59 per cent said the pandemic made them feel depressed about the future. One in five reported intentional self-harm within the past year, and 18 per cent had suicidal thoughts. One-quarter of students found virtual learning “very difficult” or “extremely difficult.”

The Ford government knew that missed classroom time has lifelong consequences. But during COVID, in the government’s eyes, children were the forgotten demographic. Let’s not make that mistake again.

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