In-person school vs. online a complicated issue, says Sask. child psychiatrist

After Saskatchewan students returned to in-person learning last week, ahead of kids in other provinces, a Saskatoon child and adolescent psychiatrist says the issue of in-person or online school during the pandemic is a complicated one.

Doctor says preventing spread of COVID-19 will help strain on children, families

A December 2021 file photo shows masked children working in a classroom. A Saskatchewan child psychiatrist says keeping students healthy by limiting the spread of COVID-19 is key to their mental health. (James Arthur Gekiere/Belga Mag/AFP/Getty Images)

After Saskatchewan students returned to in-person learning last week, ahead of kids in other provinces, a Saskatoon child and adolescent psychiatrist says the issue of in-person or online school during the pandemic is a complicated one.

Last week, Education Minister Dustin Duncan said schools should be the "first to open and the last to close."

"We know that in-class learning is critically important to students' overall mental and physical health and development," Duncan said.

But Dr. Madhav Sarda said the issue of in-class learning versus online school is "complicated and difficult."

"I think some people paint it as very obvious one way or the other, but there's a lot of factors that come into play when it comes to in-class learning," Sarda said. 

"It's not an easy decision either way. I don't envy anyone that's going to make that call."

Sarda said he could not weigh in on the educational impact of online versus in-person learning, but could offer his thoughts on how mental health is affected.

The mental health impact of online learning varies depending on the student or family, he said.

"I do feel a little perturbed that we paint this whole broad generalization among kids of 'you've got to get them back in school,' or that shutting down schools has no impact on their mental health. It's far more mixed than that."

Sarda said some children he works with who are socially anxious have a positive experience with online learning. Others depend on social interaction and structure, and school may be the only place where they have a "reliable adult looking after them."

"I think the biggest thing is we have to support not only kids but also families. That's the other part of this whole picture about how kids are doing. We tend to view kids as [an] isolated island of beings, but they're hugely impacted by their families."

When families aren't sure whether classes will be in-person or online, and are trying to support their child or set up child care, "they get stressed, and that's tough for kids too," said Sarda.

Ultimately, controlling the pandemic will be the best thing for children, he said.

"From a pandemic perspective, the more we can do to try to keep this thing in check, the better the kids are going to do. And just pretending things are normal doesn't make it so."

Sask. nurse discusses virus and school with her kids

Carolyn Strom, who works to prevent COVID-19 from spreading as a public health nurse in Prince Albert, is also a mother of two. She said she has talked with her children about the potential of contracting the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 at school.

"Last night, we sat down and had a family meeting about the good possibility that my kids will be exposed to this virus in the next few weeks or months, as much as that pains me to admit as a prevention nurse," Strom said.

Strom said the only exposure her kids will have to COVID-19 will be at school, because she has pulled them from outside activities.

She told her children to report even the mildest symptoms, so they could do their part to slow the spread of the illness.

Her children are fully vaccinated, and she explained to them the risk factors and what would happen if they had to miss school.

She expects similar discussions about COVID-19 and school are happening with other parents and their kids.

"I can't imagine the conversations that are happening in houses across this province this week."

With files from CBC's The Morning Edition


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