Health: How much longer can parents take it?

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones

Remember the movie, Network? Howard Beale, the TV news anchor, encouraged viewers to go their windows and yell out, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” How many parents feel that way about school closings?

Uncertainty about openings and closings is bad enough. But now schools face severe staffing shortages. Entire classes may be disrupted because teachers are falling sick or required to isolate.

Substitute teachers are nothing new, but the scale of the problem is concerning. Just as hospitals can shut down due to insufficient workers, so too can schools.

School boards in many jurisdictions are scrambling to figure out what options they can offer students for online learning. Some offer synchronous learning (in real-time). Others offer asynchronous learning (independent, on no fixed schedule). Some are giving students a choice between these or other options.

How will this work in practice? Due to COVID-related isolation requirements among symptomatic teachers, students can expect frequent reassignment of teachers, merged classrooms, and confusion.

Good students may fend sufficiently well. But others most certainly will not. Parents are ill-equipped to fill the gap. Many are dealing with their own shifting work requirements. Adding supervision of home-based learning for their children is not in the cards.

There is little that is more important to a child’s healthy development than quality education.

Henrietta Fore, executive director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), says, “Nationwide school closures should be avoided whenever possible.” She added, “When COVID-19 community transmission increases and stringent public health measures become a necessity, schools must be the last places to close and the first to re-open.”

The interests of children should be paramount. Fore notes, “Another wave of widespread school closures would be disastrous for children.” She knows that interrupted learning leads to lower academic achievement.

She could add, for millions of children around the world – especially girls – school closures result in permanent drop-out of education, a life-altering tragedy.

Fore has done her economic calculations too. “This generation of schoolchildren could collectively lose US$17 trillion in potential lifetime earnings.” That’s bad enough for children and their future families. But it’s also horrible news for governments. The last thing governments need now is projected lost income tax from this generation. The U.S. is already trillions in debt. Canada and many other nations are in terrible debt too.

What about the health of these children? One fact many ignore is that for some children the school meal is the most nutrition they’ll receive for the day! Moreover, prolonged isolation at home does nothing for their physical health as they sit inside for hours. You can bet your last dollar they’re gaining weight and inching closer to Type 2 diabetes. Authorities also report an increase in eating disorders and mental health problems. Recall the Gifford-Jones Law: “One health problem leads to another and another.”

Closing schools is not the answer. We must get far more ambitious with creative solutions. Retired doctors and not-yet credentialed medical students are being called on to assist with vaccination clinics. Why can’t retired teachers be invited back into schools, for example?

Church buildings sit empty most weekdays. How could community volunteers use these facilities to support parents for whom temporary home-schooling is not a good option?

Can initiatives be set up to get kids outside and active in experiential learning?

This virus is far from dead. If we are going to beat it, part of the solution will be for governments to champion new ideas. And children should not be the ones to suffer when they fail to do so.

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones and Dr. Diana Gifford-Jones can be reached at