Children and youth flourish in environments that are predictable, safe, and structured. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted these protective factors making it difficult for children and youth to adapt and thrive. Pandemic-related school closures, family stress, and trauma have led to increases in mental health problems in some children and youth, an area of health that was already in crisis well before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. Because mental health problems early in life are associated with significant impairment across family, social, and academic domains, immediate measures are needed to mitigate the potential for long-term sequalae. Now more than ever, Canada needs a national mental health strategy that is delivered in the context in which children and youth are most easily accessible—schools. This strategy should provide coordinated care across sectors in a stepped care framework and across a full continuum of mental health supports spanning promotion, prevention, early intervention, and treatment. In parallel, we must invest in a comprehensive population-based follow-up of Statistics Canada’s Canadian Health Survey on Children and Youth so that accurate information about how the pandemic is affecting all Canadian children and youth can be obtained. It is time the Canadian government prioritizes the mental health of children and youth in its management of the pandemic and beyond.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented educational and social disruptions to students worldwide. At the beginning of the pandemic, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimated school closures in 138 countries, which impacted 80% of children globally (Phelps and Sperry 2020). Two months into the pandemic, this rate increased to 188 countries affecting 1.7 billion students worldwide (UNESCO 2020). Heading into the second year of the pandemic, UNESCO’s COVID-19 global monitoring of school closures indicated that half of the world’s students were still affected by partial or full school closures (UNESCO 2021). In Canada, 5.7 million children and youth attending elementary and secondary school have been impacted by school closures (Statistics Canada 2021).
Although school closures have caused major disruptions, even when schools remained open, the experience of schooling has been fundamentally altered. For example, to contain the spread of COVID-19, changes have been made to the ways in which the curriculum is delivered in Canada. In some provinces and territories, parents of elementary school students have been offered the choice to have their child learn in-person or virtually, while students in secondary school have been presented with a blended learning model that includes class cohorts attending school part of the time in person and the other part virtually. Full-time e-learning is also available to older students in some areas of the country. In other areas, in-person attendance is the expectation with few exceptions (e.g., high risk or living with high-risk individuals). However, the provision of in-person, blended, or full-time virtual learning has also depended on the local and provincial risk levels of COVID-19 infection. All provinces and territories have developed contingency plans as risk fluctuates in their local community. Other changes have also been made to ensure the health and safety of students. Social distancing measures have been implemented in classes and during recess and breaks, substantially decreasing the amount of time students are able to interact with their peers (and teachers). Mandatory mask wearing has been implemented in most schools across Canada, as has the establishment of smaller cohorts of students, although variability exists across provinces and communities depending on the level of risk. For example, for mandatory mask wearing, there is some variation in the grade at which masks are required across the country (e.g., Ontario: grades 1–12; Alberta: grades 4–12), which also changes depending on location (e.g., required on buses) and on community level of risk tolerance. These interruptions have been dynamic; not a single static adjustment, but rather an ongoing series of adjustments that varied across and within provinces and territories.
Although these changes were advised to prevent further infections, they are not inconsequential. Virtually all aspects of children’s development have been affected. Of note are the disruptions in areas of skill development that are fundamental to optimal growth and wellness. Students’ learning and academic achievement have been negatively affected (Davies and Aurini 2021), especially for learners who were academically vulnerable before the pandemic (Whitley et al. 2021). Children and youth are now moving and playing less at school (and in their communities) than before the pandemic (McNamara 2021), which has had “immediate collateral consequences” on their development (Moore et al. 2020), including their mental health (Kang et al. 2021).