Mary Zwicker:

This month marks the third anniversary of the World Health Organization’s March 11, 2020 declaration of a global pandemic. This announcement kickstarted the emergency pandemic restrictions imposition in Canada and the United States, as well as across the world, the effects of which nations are still recovering from, and will be for a long time to come. 

Beginning in March 2020, what began as a simple two-week process to “stop the spread” and “flatten the curve” quickly escalated into what has now caused a devastating blow to nearly all areas of society, and which has impacted billions of people worldwide – especially children. 

Of those who have been affected by the heavy restrictions imposed on society during the lockdowns and beyond, children have been major victims, suffering losses in nearly all aspects of their life, including education, health, and socialization, among many others. 

“In March, we will mark two years of Covid-19-related disruptions to global education,” said Robert Jenkins, UNICEF chief of education, last year. “Quite simply, we are looking at a nearly insurmountable scale of loss to children’s schooling.” He continued: “While the disruptions to learning must end, just reopening schools is not enough. Students need intensive support to recover lost education. Schools must also go beyond places of learning to rebuild children’s mental and physical health, social development and nutrition.”

One of the major impacts of Covid-19 on children has been the extensive loss of learning imposed through their loss of education.  According to a December 2021 joint report published by UNICEF, UNESCO, and the World Bank, more than 1.6 billion children in 188 countries worldwide were restricted from their schools for prolonged periods of time, wreaking a devastating blow on learning that is now amounting to the “largest disruption to education in history. “The global disruption to education caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is without parallel and the effects on learning are severe,” the report stated.

According to this same report, learning loss resulting from school closures during the pandemic has resulted in extreme levels of learning loss among school-age children; that is, the “loss of knowledge or skills and/or deceleration of or interruption to academic progress, most commonly due to extended gaps or discontinuities in a student’s education.” According to the report, the only solution to stop the extreme loss of learning is to put students into an “accelerated learning trajectory” that would adequately cover for the lost time and forgotten knowledge that has now also put countless children “at risk of never returning to education.”

The report also found that school closures during COVID-19 negatively impacted children from every wealth class, but especially those in low and middle-income countries, with “learning losses to school closures have left up to 70 per cent of 10-year-olds unable to read or understand a simple text, up from 53 per cent pre-pandemic.” 

Additionally, the report stated that the effects of the school closures on children could amount to students from this generation facing the risk of “losing $17 trillion in lifetime earnings in present value as a result of school closures, or the equivalent of 14 per cent of today’s global GDP, far more than the $10 trillion estimated in 2020.” On account of this, poverty is expected to increase up to 70 per cent in low and middle-class countries. 

In Canada, school closures lasted longer than in Europe (which averaged 10 weeks); from March 2020 to March 2022, schools were closed to in-class learning for 28 weeks, while schools in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were shuttered for 22 and 20 weeks respectively. One early study by the University of Alberta’s George Georgiou found that by September 2020 students in Grades 1-3 experienced the equivalent of six months of learning loss. Large-scale assessments were suspended in most provinces in 2020 and 2021, so the full impact of learning loss may not be known for years. It is possible considering that schools were closed for much longer than European and American schools, that the learning loss was larger than those jurisdictions. Furthermore, U.S. research shows that remediation efforts to make up for the learning loss has worked slower than expected and some experts predict that young students may never completely catch up to their earlier peers.

Tragically, while the loss of learning in children worldwide has caused significant harm to both individuals and society at large, the harm inflicted upon children through Covid restrictions was not limited to loss of classroom instruction. Numerous studies have also shown that children have suffered severe mental health damage, while at the same time having less access to help than before restrictions. 

A Canadian study put out in September 2021 by the University of Ottawa, the Royal Society of Canada, Working Group on Children and Schools, Cundill Centre for Child and Youth Depression at Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and McMaster University and Offord Centre for Child Studies in Hamilton, found that there have been “unprecedented” amounts of children and youth suffering from mental health problems (depression and eating disorders) as a result of the pandemic. “Since January 2021, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario reported an ‘unprecedented’ number of young patients admitted to the hospital ‘in the throes of severe mental health crisis that left them suicidal’,” the study reported. The study also mentioned that Children’s Healthcare Canada had found that hospitals were experiencing “double the number of admissions following attempted suicide, a three-fold increase in admissions related to substance use, and a 60 per cent increase in the number of admissions related to eating disorders.”

Similarly, in Ontario, which has had the longest school closures of any province or territory in Canada, admissions for eating disorders were 223 per cent above capacity in June for the province’s five pediatric hospitals.

The study also found that at the beginning of Covid, the United States saw a 24 per cent increase in mental health-related emergency room visits for 5-11 year-olds, and a 31 per cent increase for 12-17-year olds, as reported by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention as early as 2020.

A joint study between the Nuffield Trust and the Health Foundation, published in February 2022, found that Covid-19 restrictions negatively impacted children and youth in England, to such an extent that the effects of the restrictions were greater than the harm inflicted on children by the virus itself. “In many ways, the wider effects of the pandemic and nationwide lockdowns on children and young people have been greater than the Covid-19 infection itself,” said Jessica Morris, a researcher at the Nuffield Trust. “Despite being much less at risk of hospital admission from the virus, the youngest members of our society have not escaped unscathed and we can see a heavy toll on their mental well-being and access to health services.”

This English study found that between the months of April and September 2021, mental health services saw a shocking 81 per cent increase in referrals for children and youth as compared to the year 2019, while at the same time, many children were unable to receive the services they needed due to backlogs in the medical system.

School closures were extraordinarily harmful to both the educational and personal development of students who may suffer lifelong for the restrictions imposed on schools by governments.