Kids in Crisis: It’s been a year of loss and resilience for Hamilton’s youth

·5 min read

With each answer, eight-year-old Cristel Guzman expertly unmutes herself.

After more than a year of learning remotely on Microsoft Teams and participating in after-school programs over Zoom, online etiquette is second nature.

“I get my yoga mat and then I do gymnastics or dance on it,” she said. “For tennis, you just make a ball out of paper and then you get your tennis racquet and then you just bounce it all over the place.”

Cristel is describing virtual after-school programs offered by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Hamilton in place of its in-person programs, which were cancelled in March 2020. Besides living-room sports, she takes part in kids’ clubs and cooking classes with free ingredient kits provided by the organization.

Before the pandemic, Cristel was a regular at the organization’s after-school programs, where she spent more than an hour a day.

“I love swimming,” she said. “I didn’t even care if it was cold.”

Then, the pandemic struck and swimming lessons stopped.

March break camp was cancelled. Playdates were postponed. Public playgrounds were off limits. Schools had already closed, with March break extended first by two weeks, then indefinitely.

“I felt sad because I felt like I had nothing to do, no one to talk to,” she said. “Sometimes I just get bored.”

Over the past 13 months, Cristel and thousands of other children in Hamilton have had their lives upended — in some cases with disastrous results. They’ve lost social connections and learning opportunities. The pandemic is wreaking havoc on their physical and mental health.

Consider this:

In a four-month period last fall, McMaster Children’s Hospital admitted 26 youths following serious suicide attempts — more than three times the number of admissions in the same span in 2019.

A recent Statistics Canada survey found that nearly 60 per cent of households do not have enough internet-enabled devices for everyone in the home — meaning many kids may not have access to the tools they need to learn remotely.

Fifty-four per cent of children surveyed by the Angus Reid Institute said they missed their friends amid pandemic-induced school closures and isolation, and 25 per cent said their friendships have worsened.

Since the pandemic began, more Canadian families are relying on sources of free or low-cost food. Hamilton-based Food4Kids added nearly 100 students and 13 schools to its programs this year, exceeding its maximum capacity for the first time.

In July, 64 per cent of parents were concerned about the amount of time their kids spent on screens. Many kids rely on gym class, after-school programming and organized sports — most of which have been cancelled for more than a year — for exercise. This means that kids who were already struggling to meet Canada’s daily physical activity guidelines are even more unlikely to get the exercise they need.

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental, social well-being, and it’s not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” said Dr. Martha Fulford, infectious disease specialist at McMaster Children’s Hospital. “Health is not just no COVID.”

Fulford, previously a teacher, is one of the Hamilton physicians sounding the alarm bell on kids’ health and well-being, which includes mental health and academic success, among other outcomes.

“Children are a vulnerable group in and of themselves that have to be protected separately,” she said. “Kids are our future. We have to look after them.”

She argues that kids have been “collateral damage” in a pandemic where they are less likely to become infected with or spread the virus than adults.

In the coming weeks, The Spectator will examine in this multipart series how young people in Hamilton are faring — mentally, physically, socially, academically and otherwise — a year into the pandemic.

Here, those 19 years old and under account for less than 15 per cent of all COVID cases. Many of those infected have experienced mild symptoms or no signs of COVID at all. No deaths have been reported among children and youth.

But, Fulford said, youth, particularly teenagers, have endured a different type of loss — that is, the loss of friendships, sports, music, peer support and important coming-of-age milestones, like graduation, part-time jobs and first loves.

“It’s the loss of all these extracurricular things that make us into rounded, interesting people with lots of different talents and skills,” she said. “And we’ve shut that down.”

For the most part, Cristel and her sister, four-year-old Kaitlyn, have been each other’s only company. The family goes for walks and bike rides in their residential neighbourhood. In their small backyard, the girls have a trampoline, a tire swing and a plastic slide they’ve nearly outgrown.

The family’s Crown Point home is about a block from Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Elementary School, where Cristel would normally be learning at a desk surrounded by classmates. But Cristel hasn’t been inside a classroom in more than a year.

Her mother, afraid for the family’s safety, kept her daughter in remote learning.

“It’s hard,” said Cristina Guzman, who runs an online business. “But I just feel comfortable with myself because what can I do? This is it. This is my role as a mother.”

Classrooms reopened in September with the option to choose between in-person and remote learning and, for high school students, a hybrid model. As community infections rose steadily in the fall, the province instructed school boards to keep their doors closed after the Christmas break. They didn’t reopen in Hamilton until February.

Now, about a year after school first closed, most Ontario students are learning remotely once again amid a rampant third wave.

“They’ve had to go through a lot of transitions ... without the support that might have been in place before,” said Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, an Ontario advocacy group. “There’s been a big social impact.”

What is not yet known is how the repeated disruptions have affected students’ learning — especially disadvantaged students from low-income and racialized communities, which have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

“When you miss what is the equivalent of months of learning, which is what people are worried about now, it actually has an impact on your whole life,” Kidder said. “It’s very, very hard to catch up, and it’s very hard to catch up if you were already struggling.”

Kate McCullough, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator