How schools combatted the isolating effects of remote learning

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It will likely take decades to see and understand the full effects of remote learning on kids, but studies are already trickling in: In February, SickKids released its results of a survey asking more than 1,000 parents and nearly 360 youth how and if the pandemic had worsened their mental health. Their findings were concerning, albeit not surprising: Of six domains—depression, anxiety, irritability, attention span, hyperactivity and obsessions/compulsions—more that 70 per cent of school-aged kids reported deterioration in at least one. Some experts predict that more than 50 per cent of children during COVID now meet the criteria for a mental health disorder.

With rare exceptions, for example a child with sensory issues or a child who’s bullied, experts in the field believe remote learning is largely detrimental to kids’ mental health. “We’ve seen higher rates of anxiety, especially related to germs and death and dying, and worry about doing well in school and the future,” says Cristina Magriñá, psychologist at Kindercare Pediatrics. Isolation, depression, and even eating disorders are more prevalent than before.

But even kids without an official diagnosis will be and already have been affected by COVID. “I worked this summer at a camp for kids,” explains Kindercare’s director and paediatrician Dr. Daniel Flanders, “and I watched a very unusual period of time for the first week or two where these kids are suddenly back together after eighteen months of isolation. Many had to re-learn the social skills necessary to feel comfortable.”

Until the world reopens, kids who are learning remotely are indeed uncomfortable, but Canadian schools are doing their best to support students in their classes and communities just when they need it most. Park Street Education, who partnered with Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Toronto to provide full scholarships and was accessible to “Littles” across Toronto, went well beyond online classes: “We hosted experience-based, virtual activities open to all grades,” says Head Teacher Julie Champagne, “like cooking challenges, escape rooms, game days, pumpkin carving, holiday celebrations, and more.” Blyth Academy dedicated “Wednesdays for Wellness,” with yoga, art classes, meditation, music lessons and scavenger hunts.

Remote learning hasn’t been easy on kids, but just like those kids at camp, children are surprisingly resilient—more so than most adults. “The silver lining is that most kids are very resilient and will bounce right back,” says Dr. Flanders. “We just need to be sure we think about the couple of kids that didn’t.”

How parents can help

“As parents, we’re currently in mitigation mode,” says Dr. Flanders. Here are a few good habits to keep in mind to make the pandemic a little bit more bearable on your kid’s sensitive brain.

Commiserate: Admit that COVID sucks, it’s not fair, remote learning is very difficult and everyone’s mental health has been affected. Even yours. “When you open these lines of communication, you make it okay for them to come to you,” says Magriñá.

Listen: The very best thing you can do as a parent is to just listen. “Normalize, empathize and validate,” she suggests. “You’re not going to solve all their problems, but you can be there and share
the experience.

Remember: Grown-ups
tend to forget how serious peers are to kids, especially teenagers. “Nothing is more important to a kid than their friends,” says Dr. Flanders. Parents should go out of
their way to support these relationships. “Try to facilitate some face-to-face interaction every day—however distanced,” he says.