As parents in Ontario prepare to send their children back to school, a group of Ontario doctors is outlining some of the risks that remain in the classroom and how to combat them.
The upcoming school year will be the first since the COVID-19 pandemic was officially declared over and marks the end of years of restrictions faced by students. For children who started school during the pandemic, in particular, that could mean a major change.
Dr. Richa Agniholtri, a pediatrician from Niagara, said the pandemic had impacted children’s relationships with parents, caregivers, classrooms and themselves.
There has been a rise in the number of mental health issues reported among children, including anxiety, she said. Academic challenges like literacy and social issues are also a key concern.
“Meet your child where they are,” Agniholtri said during a briefing organized by the Ontario Medical Association. “Help them to gain some tools in their armoury to overcome these challenges”
A particularly useful tool she said is the creation of a predictable routine like a written schedule that can give children a sense of regularity.
An increase in screentime — which has doubled since the pandemic — is also a concern.
Child psychiatrist Dr. Katherine Mathesona said the increase was “not a surprise” as parents had been forced to use screens as “an electronic babysitter” while working from home during the pandemic.
Over-reliance on screens can be damaging for children, Matheson said. Children’s brains develop best from face-to-face interactions and screen time can be a “lost opportunity” for those moments. Over-reliance on screens can lead to obesity and problems with vision and social skills, she said.
Matheson recommended tech-free zones during certain times like family meals or events and pointed to guidance that suggested children shouldn’t use screens at all until they’re two years old.
It may be the first year since the pandemic has been declared over “but COVID is still here,” Toronto Public Health’s associate medical officer of health Dr. Vinita Dubey said.
She said the presence of COVID-19 could cause a “tripledemic” which would see RSV, influenza and COVID-19 all increase at “about the same time.”
She reminded parents to renew their own and their children’s vaccines in the fall, saying there was a risk of long COVID, which in children can present through fatigue and poor concentration.
“Getting that fall COVID booster will help to enhance our immunity to prevent getting very sick from COVID,” Dubey said.
While respiratory illnesses are currently relatively low, Dr. Andrew Parks, the president of the Ontario Medical Association, warned illnesses are likely to rise as the fall and winter set in.
“Historically, we see the rates of these viruses increase in the fall as temperatures drop and people spend more time indoors,” he said.