CHEO head urging full return to school in September

The president and CEO of Ottawa's children's hospital is calling for a full return to school this September, warning the pandemic is hurting kids' mental health. 

Alex Munter said governments need to prioritize getting children back to school 5 days a week

The CEO of Ottawa's children's hospital is urging public health and government officials to find a way for students to return to the classroom this fall. (BlurryMe/Shutterstock)

The head of Ottawa's children's hospital is calling for a full return to school this September, warning the pandemic is hurting kids' mental health. 

Alex Munter, CHEO's president and CEO, told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning that governments need to prioritize getting children back into the classroom five days a week.

Munter joins leaders of children's hospitals in Toronto and Halifax who have made similar calls.

"The conversation we should be having is, how do we get back to five day a week school and child care? How do we make that possible? And then assess every other decision we make against that objective," Munter said Wednesday.

Munter said the hospital has started to hear from pediatricians who say they're seeing an increase in mental health issues related to the ongoing pandemic. 

Alex Munter is the president and CEO of CHEO. (Steve Bezanson/Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario/Canadian Press)

'Safety argument' for 5-day return

Children are "among the least likely to be infected by COVID-19, but they are among those that have been most affected," Munter said.

"They've lost school and daycare, friends. Kids with special needs have lost access to supports, lost access to grandma, and so all of that adding up, and we're starting to see a picture of what that means."

Munter believes there's a "safety argument" to make for bringing kids back to school full time.

Some parents have panned the OCDSB's proposal to bring students back just two days a week. The board will hold a special meeting Thursday to discuss options for the 2020-21 school year, which may involve remote learning, a full return to classes or a hybrid model, depending on public health advice.

"Five day a week is likely safer than two or three day a week school," said Munter.

"Better to have kids [together] in a supervised environment with the same children, five days a week, than to be in school for a couple days a week, and then scattered across neighbours, friends, caregivers, and having lots of contact with lots more people in the intervening days."

'Harm to children'

On Monday, Ottawa's medical officer of health also spoke about the importance of children returning to school in the fall.

Dr. Vera Etches said she has not yet decided on a "firm recommendation of one specific approach" among the various options being discussed by school boards, but said once she has decided she plans to provide feedback.

"What I am convinced of is that there is harm to children occurring, and to families, because children are not in school, or they haven't had the child-care options. And we need to strike a balance when it comes to the fall," Etches said.

Etches said while there is a risk children could spread COVID-19 to vulnerable populations, kids themselves typically "do not get serious infections" from COVID-19.

Etches said the new mandatory mask policy will hopefully help to manage community spread so that kids can return to school.

"Adults do their part to keep the transmission low by physically distancing, staying two metres apart, limiting your contacts, staying home when you're sick," Etches said.  "We as adults need to do our part so that children can be together, and be in school as much as possible."

with files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now