Experts, parents call for more mental health support as kids head back to school

After nearly six months of strict physical distancing, mask wearing and staying home as much as possible, Cathy Shanahan's eight-year-old daughter Jacqueline is just weeks away from what could be a jarring transition.

Like hundreds of thousands of students across Ontario, Jacqueline is heading back to school next month, where some of her now-familiar COVID-19 precautions will become impossible to maintain.

Shanahan worries that change could become a source of stress and anxiety as her daughter begins Grade 4 at Toronto's French Catholic school board.

"She's been fantastic with social distancing … and yet here we are saying, 'You're going to go into a classroom where you're not going to be six feet away from your classmates,'" said Shanahan.

"Will she be able to actually focus on her work, and not the potential repercussions of the fact that everyone is so close together?"

Concerns about the mental health of children have become an increasing point of attention as school boards across the province finalize their reopening plans, but details about programs to support returning students are not yet widely available.

Back-to-school presents 'huge risk' for student mental health

Research suggests that the pandemic has had an outsize effect on young people, with many reporting higher levels of anxiety, loneliness and depression since schools in Ontario were closed in mid-March.

"We found, not surprisingly, that they were really concerned about the pandemic," said Wendy Ellis, an associate professor of psychology at King's University College at Western University.

"The more fearful students were, the more they experienced some of this distress."

Ellis and her colleague Tara Dumas reported their findings after conducting a survey of more than 1,000 teenagers across Ontario after schools were ordered closed.

Considering those disturbing results, Ellis said it will be critical that schools develop strong mental health programs to support students as they embark on yet another jarring transition during what has already been a tumultuous year.

"I think that there's a really huge risk when all these things are happening," she said.

The provincial government's guide to reopening schools describes mental health and well-being as "core elements" of the plan, though it does not lay out specific measures or changes that should be made.

King's University College
King's University College

"School boards should implement a tiered approach for mental health supports that will capture all students and target intensive help to those who have been most affected by the COVID-19 outbreak," the guide says.

The consulting organization School Mental Health Ontario will advise local boards about how to enhance their services, though many boards have not yet finalized what their COVID-19 mental health services will look like.

TDSB says coping skills will be key

The Toronto District School Board has not yet finalized its COVID-19 mental health guidelines, though it is expected to reveal more information to parents during a virtual town hall meeting next week.

Heather Johnson, a social worker and one of the board's top mental health advisers, told CBC Toronto that the mental health of returning students is "hugely being factored into the TDSB's plan."

Johnson said the board will try to focus on enhancing its students' coping skills as they adjust to restricted cohorts, mandatory masks and altered schedules.

She said efforts to support students will include specific lessons while other changes will be built into the curriculum itself. TDSB staff will undergo some professional development training before students return where mental health challenges will be discussed, Johnson added.

"I think there will be some children who will be more challenged, who will be more impacted by what they've been through in the last six months and I think there will be a lot of children who will be doing incredibly well," Johnson said.

Ellis added that educators will have to make a concerted effort to identify which of their students are most in need of extra help when they return to class. She noted that the pandemic has likely had disproportionate effects on the province's children.

"Coming off of six months in a hostile home environment can also come with a huge burden for these students," Ellis said.