The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 led to school closures in more than 188 countries, with an estimated 1.6 billion children being affected at the pandemic’s peak. In a move initially made to curb the rapid rise of COVID-19 cases, Ontario’s schools will have been closed for 26 weeks at the end of June 2021— more than any other Canadian jurisdiction. The duration of Ontario’s school closures has adversely impacted students and families, and particularly low-income households, racialized groups, newcomers, and students with disabilities. Emerging evidence reveals that the Ontario government’s failure to prioritize the reopening of schools is likely to have lasting consequences on children’s educational outcomes and mental health.
While it will take years to draw firm conclusions about the long-term effects of Canada’s national and subnational COVID-19 policy measures, growing research from Europe and the United States consistently indicates that school shutdowns have serious implications for children and youth. Numerous studies report that the adverse effects of closures include learning loss and negative mental health outcomes such as increased depression and anxiety. Preliminary data from Canadian sources reflects these international findings and suggests that barriers to remote education and the absence of in-person learning have decreased student engagement and caused months of learning loss and social isolation.
Students require reliable access to the internet and an internet-enabled device to participate in virtual classrooms. While pre-pandemic data shows that only 1.2% of Canadian households with children did not have access to home internet, this number increases to 4.2% for the lower end of household income distribution. Similarly, lower-income households are more likely to not have an appropriate device, such as a laptop, for online learning; approximately 24% of households in Canada’s lowest income quartile reported using mobile phones to access the internet, compared to only 8% in the highest income quartile. Racialized groups, recent immigrants, and Indigenous peoples are over-represented among low-income households and are more vulnerable to these challenges.
The negative effects of school closures are likely to compound existing educational inequalities that impact marginalized communities. Throughout the pandemic, high-income households have increasingly turned to expensive private services to supplement their children’s education. This has made the transition to remote education easier for students from wealthier households, while many lower-income students have struggled to adapt to unfamiliar learning environments with no external help. Students without additional supports are more likely to suffer from learning loss over Ontario’s period of school closures than others.
Learning loss as a result of long-term school closures has been linked to losses in earnings during adulthood. Citing international research, a report by the COVID-19 Science Table claims that Ontario public school students are between 1.6 to 3.3 months behind where they should be academically if in-person learning had not been shut down in March 2020. The report cites studies which found that the average achievement levels in 2020 are considerably lower than that of cohorts from preceding school years. This can potentially be explained by a rise in absenteeism and declines in overall school enrolment and the amount of time students report spending on schoolwork.
School closures-induced skill losses have the potential to affect the Canadian economy through their impact on labour productivity and innovation. Assuming that these gaps do not continue to grow after in-person learning resumes, researchers estimate a long-term GDP loss of about $1.6 trillion for student cohorts that experienced Ontario’s spring 2020 school closures. This negative impact on economic growth is further exacerbated by decreased female labour participation as a result of COVID-19. School and childcare centre closures had a large economic impact on women due to the shifting of care responsibilities onto families, and disproportionately onto mothers.
Prolonged school closures are being linked to an increase in mental health problems among youth who are experiencing social isolation and remote learning challenges. A 2020 Statistics Canada crowdsourcing initiative revealed that two-thirds (64%) of respondents aged 15-24 reported that the pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health. These results are likely gendered. Pre-pandemic data from 2019 shows that among children and youth, girls are twice as likely as boys to report fair or poor mental health. This difference was largest among those aged 15 to 17, with 24% of girls reporting poor mental health compared to only 10% of boys.
The severity of mental health problems among youth has clearly worsened due to COVID-19. Research from SickKids Hospital in Toronto shows that 70% of school-aged children report deterioration in at least one of the six following domains of mental health: attention span, depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, irritability, and obsessions/compulsions. Pediatric and mental health experts also note that destabilizing factors including social isolation and infection fears are contributing to an increase in eating disorders among youth.
Doctors in pediatric hospitals across Canada have witnessed a significant jump in admissions and demand for outpatient treatment. Yearly admissions to the SickKids Centre for Community Mental Health in Toronto are expected to jump 30%, while the number of referred outpatients is expected to increase, up to 60%. Cases primarily involve restrictive eating related to anorexia nervosa and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorders.
There is little doubt that disrupted care and isolation stemming from extended school closures has played a key role in driving up these numbers. Anecdotal evidence reveals that increased exposure to social media, limited supervision, and an inability to socialize with friends has allowed mental illnesses, including eating disorders, to thrive. The increase of mental health issues among youth is especially concerning due to Canada’s fragmented and chronically underfunded mental health system. The director of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) mental health program says that the demand for mental health services has been so overwhelming that the program denies up to 73% of referrals. Community-based services face similar staff and resource shortages and wait-lists can be up to 18 months long. This often deters struggling youth from seeking mental health support and risks further deteriorating their condition.
Despite numerous calls from education experts and advocates to reopen Ontario’s schools in June for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year, Premier Doug Ford announced that in-person learning would remain closed until September. The plan to prioritize the reopening of non-essential businesses before schools has faced heavy criticism. In a letter addressed to Ontario’s Premier, Minister of Education, and Minister of Health, over 400 Ontario doctors say that the government ignored their advice recommending a return to in-person learning. A safe reopening of schools would have been possible if the Ontario government had provided school boards with sufficient PPE, supported smaller class sizes, provided funding to upgrade school ventilation systems, and prioritized teachers and school staff in its vaccine rollout.
In focusing solely on the reopening of businesses, the Ontario government has failed to account for the long-term well-being of children. The multidimensional losses resulting from school closures will be disproportionately felt by low-income households, racialized groups, newcomers, and students with disabilities.
Further research and data collection at the school board and provincial levels will be necessary to address the differential educational experiences of students and educators to develop an evolving and equitable policy response. However, it is clear that the Ontario government needs to commit to investing heavily in education and create a strategic recovery plan to address learning loss and improve mental health outcomes. This must include measures to expand mental health service capacity within schools, develop responsive school curriculums, and provide targeted supports for students who have fallen behind due to the pandemic. Building a strong education system that meets students’ diverse learning needs and lived experiences will be fundamental to a successful post-pandemic recovery.