McMaster Children's Hospital and HWDSB call for in-person learning for last week of school

McMaster Children's Hospital has penned a letter in support of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board's (HWDSB) request to the province that in-person learning be allowed for the last week of the school year.

HWDSB chair says school board needs answer from province by Monday or else it may be too late to try

Hamilton's public school board and a local children's hospital are advocating to have kids do in-person learning for the final week of the school year. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

McMaster Children's Hospital has penned a letter in support of Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board's (HWDSB) request to the province that in-person learning be allowed during the last week of school.

In the letter on Wednesday, hospital president Bruce Squires highlighted "ringing alarm bells" from front-line clinical teams and "the devastating impact that social isolation is having on children's health and well-being."

"We have seen frightening increases in referrals to our eating disorders program (90%) and admissions following a suicide attempt (tripling) and due to substance use disorders (doubling)," read the letter.

"Our public advocacy on this matter has been consistent and unwavering, because what is seen in hospital is a direct reflection of what's going on in the community; and is likely just the tip of the iceberg."

Squires' letter also states with each day, the impact worsens — which is why the hospital is "strongly in support" of the move to in-person learning.

"This will bring significant benefits, particularly in supporting relationships and exposure to routine, and allowing school staff to identify and intervene with students who may be requiring support," he wrote.

On Tuesday, HWDSB sent a letter to the Ministry of Education to try and make the change.

Chair Dawn Danko said the board received direction from the province for face-to-face celebrations outdoors, but the board can do more to support students by bringing them back.

She also acknowledged that not everyone agrees with re-opening schools for five to seven days between June 21 and June 29.

"We've heard from some parents that there would be no point and it's irresponsible and we've heard from others [who say] thank you for trying ... we've heard from staff that are concerned about what it would mean to go back to in-person," Danko said.

But she, and McMaster Children's Hospital, say the pros outweigh the cons.

Educators and students have detailed the toll online learning has taken on them, noting mental health challenges and academic struggles.

HWDSB needs to hear by Monday

When asked about how he would respond to HWDSB's letter during a media briefing, Education Minister Stephen Lecce didn't provide a clear answer.

"With respected to graduation ceremonies, if there's an intention to hold events and celebrate children outside, we've provided guidance, we ask school boards to follow it, but if there's anything above and beyond the guidance that the school board has contemplated it is important that they get their local medical officer of health to sign off on it," he said.

But Danko said the board needs provincial approval to make it happen.

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, the city's medical officer of health, says she told the province schools should open and is waiting on the Ministry of Education to makes up its mind.

"This has been our priority throughout the COVID-19 pandemic when moving forward with reopening our communities. We as a community recognize how critical it is for our young people to be in school for their mental and emotional wellbeing and for that sense of routine," she said.

Trustee Dawn Danko says the culture of the public school board is changing. "The chair and the vice chair have set a tone that has says we want to be open, we want to be communicative, we want to be responsive," she says. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Danko said she understands Lecce is willing to speak with the board about the proposal.

But Danko also said she thinks if there isn't a definitive answer by Monday, it may be too late.

"From my perspective, and this is not talking on behalf of the board of trustees, I think if we don't have a decision by Monday, it would be very challenging to ask staff to do the planning required," she said.


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