For the three months between March Break and the summer holidays, more than two million children across Ontario were at home instead of in school. Most of them will be back in their classrooms this September, although it is not yet clear how that will change if COVID-19 infection rates rise again. But as educators and policy-makers adapt to new ways of educating children while maintaining public health, serious consideration also needs to be given to the key roles schools play in the lives of children beyond academic achievement. Specifically, our school system is critical in the development, protection and safety of youth who have experienced abuse or neglect. In-person classes are an irreplaceable part of Ontario’s child protective ecosystem; therefore, any ministerial decision about keeping schools open cannot be narrowly focused on education and public health outcomes but must also consider child welfare outcomes.

There have been rising concerns about child protection and safety during the pandemic. Child welfare professionals across Canada are reporting an estimated 30 to 40 per cent decrease in reports of child abuse and neglect to Children’s Aid Societies since physical distancing measures were implemented, but it would be a mistake to assume that means children are safer. Some American states are seeing fewer calls to child welfare services as well, but they have also seen more drastic instances of child abuse entering their health-care systems.

Canada’s declining reports of child abuse must be contextualized with other social indicators, such as the rise in domestic violence during the pandemic, that would suggest abuse itself is not actually declining. Federal consultations have shown a 20 to 30 per cent increase of domestic violence in some regions, resulting in a higher number of calls to shelters, transition houses and social services – which have not always been able to respond, as they are already operating at capacity or closed because of the pandemic. In many instances, adult and child victims of domestic violence are forced by public health measures to isolate themselves with abusers. For young children, even witnessing this violence may lead to long-term physical and mental risks, including lower life expectancy, obesity, mental health issues and recurrence of violence in their adult relationships.

Furthermore, economic downturns can be a time of elevated risk, and many families today are facing pressure from high unemployment and the eventual end of government-issued financial support such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Increased anxieties from these pressures could result in increased substance use and mental health challenges, both of which are commonly seen in caregivers being investigated for abuse in Ontario.


Getting kids help when they need it

In Canada, we lack the data to make any definitive judgements about the prevalence of child abuse or maltreatment during the pandemic. Traditional points of access and data collection, such as schools and community organizations, have been closed during the pandemic without the capacity for assessment or data reporting. Assessment and support cannot be done remotely: educators and child welfare workers need to be able to assess children in a private face-to-face setting that is not likely achievable over the phone or video conference while parents are in the house. But kids can’t wait for final data to prove their reality, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. They need to have access to service hubs, social support, educational stimulus and stable, caring adults that they can see every day – all of which for many at-risk children are available principally through in-person public education.

Within the complex child welfare system, Children’s Aid Societies are one of the largest legislated players and they directly intersect with our education system in many ways. In 2018, 32 per cent of referrals to Children’s Aid came from schools, making them the largest reporting body in the province for instances of maltreatment. Between school closures and a lack of real-time learning, fewer children have had immediate access to educators who would be able to flag potential maltreatment and provide direct support or report it to an appropriate child welfare agency. Every Ontarian, including professionals who work with children everyday, has a legislated duty to report suspected instances of child abuse to a provincial child welfare body, most commonly a local Children’s Aid Society. Teachers are trained and reminded by the College of Teachers that if they have reasonable grounds to suspect the occurrence or risk of emotional, physical or sexual abuse through obvious physical indicators such as bruises, scrapes and burns, or more subjective social indicators like radical shifts in a child’s behaviour, they have a legal responsibility to report it. Approximately 80 per cent of cases are closed after the initial investigation without any additional intervention or follow-up. Yet, too often, serious incidents are uncovered and resources are deployed to address them, including connecting children and families to community supports, mental health care, counselling, social services and guidance.

It is important to remember that although Children’s Aid can offer this support, it is not immediately welcome for many marginalized communities, especially Black and Indigenous communities, which have been overrepresented in the child welfare and foster care systems for decades. As all groups with a child-centred mandate continue to plan for September, we need to use this momentum and opportunity to rebuild trust between our educators, child welfare workers and families, by emphasizing community-based services in addition to provincially run child protection services.


A place for development and stability

Schools play a key role in the protection and development of children and are embedded within a publicly funded education system that begins when a child turns six years old. Their financial and social permanency within our society, government and children’s lives means they have the ability to withstand social and economic pressures in ways that other supports may not, making them the ideal place to centralize services. In addition to offering academic learning, experts say that promoting the wellbeing of children is part of the “core business” of schools. In many instances, schools help fill gaps in access, such as breakfast programs that feed children a nutritious meal before they start their day, or community programs that run during lunch periods. They are ideally positioned to support positive child development and resiliency through offering access to supportive adults and peer networks. The Ministry of Education recognized in a 2016 engagement paper that schools have a unique role to play in student wellbeing because kids spend their formative years in a classroom, which gives school staff a window to observe a student’s needs over time and provide support. Since March, many children have had this window into their lives shuttered, which poses problems for children who are at risk.

To go a step further in understanding the role of the classroom in our society, the ministry needs to consider the full scope of an educator’s role as a caring adult for children. Teaching has become more than a “show-and-tell” recital of equations and concepts – it is critical for children’s development, and helps set them up to lead healthy lives. There is a myriad of evidence-based studies that indicate when teachers are actively engaged in children’s lives, students are more likely to thrive academically, take on more responsibility, persevere in the face of hardship, and build healthier relationships with their peers and into adulthood. Classrooms are also critical in assessing and supporting mental health challenges. Children’s Mental Health Ontario says that 20 per cent of all students in an average Ontario classroom suffer from some form of mental health challenge, which does not take into consideration the exacerbated impact of COVID-19 on children’s mental health. Schools are already commonly used as hubs for assessing and facilitating the delivery of formal mental health services, in addition to their everyday role in providing a supportive environment for kids to learn. The need for these mental health services will be greater this fall than ever before.

The centralized assessment and support role that schools play for children will be more important than ever this year as the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health, wellbeing and safety come into full focus. A return to in-person classrooms must include an inclusive, collaborative response from child welfare workers, educators and community resources. All relevant ministries must work together to ensure a safe, healthy and supportive return to school in the fall by equally prioritizing critical child welfare outcomes and the role education plays in protecting children.

Braelyn Guppy is the Marketing and Communications Lead at the Ryerson Leadership Lab.