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An empty classroom at Eric Hamber Secondary School, in Vancouver, on March 23, 2020.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

As provincial governments announce a return to virtual learning for students, it has brought an unwelcome moment of déjà vu for families, flashing back to previous waves of the pandemic when students were forced to learn from home for weeks on end.

Both Quebec and Nova Scotia have extended the holiday break for students until Jan. 10 as COVID-19 cases surge, fuelled by the fast-spreading Omicron variant. Ontario and Alberta are weighing whether schools should reopen to in-person learning next week, causing anxiousness among families and educators.

Almost two years into the pandemic, one thing is certain: Research in Canada and around the world has shown consistently that closing schools has a detrimental effect on a wide range of outcomes, including mental health, learning and social development. For the most vulnerable students who fall furthest behind, the harm may disrupt their path into adulthood.

B.C. Teachers Federation wants delay of school restart as COVID-19 cases surge

All this uncertainty about the weeks ahead might have been avoided, says Tracy Vaillancourt, the chair of the Royal Society of Science Task Force on COVID-19 and the lead author of the group’s study on the impact of school closings, had governments heeded the loud chorus of education and pediatric experts who urged politicians to take every measure to keep classrooms open, including prioritizing boosters for teachers and setting up rigorous rapid testing for students and staff.

The Ontario Science Table, a group of scientists evaluating emerging COVID-19 research, was just one group among many to conclude that school closings “should be part of a pandemic control strategy in only the most catastrophic of circumstances.”

“It is really disheartening to be back in this cycle a year later, and having the same conversation,” says Jess Whitley, a member of the Royal Society task force and an education professor at the University of Ottawa.

For at-risk students – especially those whose connection to school was already tenuous – the consequences of more indefinite closings put them at increased risk of dropping out. A significant number of students in Canada, Dr. Vaillancourt points out, have never even logged on to remote learning, spending long weeks since the COVID-19 outbreak began without any school at all.

Canadian research already shows widening education gaps among lower-income and racialized youth, which will be challenging to narrow once the pandemic is over. A recent Canadian study used the existing work on the effect of summer breaks on learning loss to extrapolate that, during the first wave of the pandemic, the average student fell behind by up to 3½ months – with lower-performing students falling as much as a year and a half behind their higher-achieving peers. Those learning gaps would be expected to grow with repeated school closings.

While scientists talk about public-health restrictions as serving as a “circuit breaker” to reduce the spread of the virus, long-standing research shows that cutting certain teenagers off from school breaks another circuit: the guarantee that they will remain engaged. Not graduating has generational consequences, Dr. Vaillancourt says. Students who don’t finish high school may become “trapped in a cycle of poverty, which then becomes this cascading effect,” changing the prospects for their own children.

Virtual learning, Dr. Vaillancourt says, could not replace the most important elements that make school a positive academic and social environment. Teachers could not easily track which students were falling behind. The lack of face-to-face contact eroded the feeling among children that they mattered to their teachers – a belief that is key to building attachment to school. In recent work by Dr. Vaillancourt, students who were taught solely online during the pandemic were the least likely to feel that their teachers were personally invested in them. “You’re more likely to persist in something that’s challenging if you think the person that’s teaching you is invested in you and that they care about you,” she says. “How can teachers convey that when they’re doing this online?”

Closing schools limited access to mental-heath resources, therapy for children with disabilities and food support for families. During the pandemic, Dr. Whitley has surveyed 250 parents of students with varying levels of special needs and learning disabilities, and conducted interviews with 36 families. In some cases, she says, mothers wept on the phone. “The complexity for some of these families, and the financial stress, and worrying about whether this is going to make or break their child’s trajectory was extraordinary.”

On the social-emotional side, closing schools failed to recognize peer relationships as something central to the well-being of children and youth. “That’s the most important thing in a teenager’s life,” says Dr. Vaillancourt, who studies peer dynamics in schools. “That’s what gives them oxygen.” Taking young kids out of school also means they may have missed developing important skills such as sitting at a desk, paying attention and collaborating with other students.

Being together in a classroom, Dr. Vaillancourt says, meant students and teachers were validating their shared experience of the pandemic, “versus dealing with it at home and all the baggage that comes with that with your camera off,” she says. “That’s a lonely experience.” Teachers are also often the first to notice and report issues of abuse or neglect, but educators were separated from students just as domestic-violence risk factors such as stress and financial strain were rising.

While the economy has been the focus for many governments, experts point out that school is intrinsically linked to the ability of parents, especially mothers, to remain at their jobs. “We sent six-year-olds home when their mom was working at the grocery store, and we thought that would be okay?” Dr. Vaillancourt asks.

Mental-health research during the pandemic shows that one of the groups experiencing the highest amount of stress and anxiety were mothers with young children left with the untenable task of working while also home-schooling their kids. Dr. Vaillancourt suggests that the willingness to close schools speaks to who has a voice in Canada. “It’s not the women who are working two jobs to support their children, and maybe are heading their family alone, who have time to get on Twitter and tweet the Minister of Education.”

The social side effects of the pandemic are still unfolding, including the true mental-health burden that will be left for communities, schools and families to carry. But even if, as past research on disasters and mass trauma events suggests, most teens and children will be resilient, that doesn’t mean they will bounce back to their same prepandemic state and not require extra help to fully recover. As experts such as Dr. Vaillancourt point out, educators and policy makers will also need to consider the cumulative harm on students who started the pandemic in the most vulnerable place, and have suffered most during it.

The dire situation of the pandemic, however, also resulted in some new innovations. At the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa, a group of teachers and counsellors has been providing extra support to 150 high-school students living on their own or in foster or group homes. “We are the guide by the side,” says Jill Bennett, the education liaison with the society who conceived the idea in March, 2020, when schools first closed. The program now has 19 teacher candidates from the University of Ottawa who provide weekly virtual check-ins and step in with tutoring or emotional support as needed.

School closings, Ms. Bennett says, can be particularly hard on these students since teachers often become too busy to track them closely; they lose contact with school and may not have any family to help them. “We make sure they know we are there if they need us,” Ms. Bennett says. Last year, the program reported a 12-per-cent increase in credit attainment compared with data from before the pandemic. It is now being piloted in more rural areas outside the city.

Still, many more struggling students will not get this kind of support unless their parents can afford to pay for it. While closing schools may become necessary as the Omicron variant spreads, Dr. Vaillancourt says society needs to understand that the decision may have long-term consequences that aren’t easily remedied. “I’m not saying that we send students or teachers to school if it’s unsafe,” she says. “But let’s make it safe so that we can mitigate the harm that is likely to ensue for many kids.”

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