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Advocating for the needs of children and youth through pandemic

For many kids, gone are the days of recess and playdates

Instead, for most, classes, music lessons, recreational activities, and even birthday parties have been happening from behind a screen.

But despite teachers and parents working diligently to manage options of in-person and virtual classes, for many kids and youth, especially those with disabilities, the toll the pandemic has had goes far beyond than just having to social distance from their friends or staying at home.

That’s why, recognizing the growing needs beyond its community, Holland Bloorview stepped up in advocating with our community partners for kids and youth—especially those with disabilities—and especially when it came to asking the government to open all schools.  

Introducing the Coalition

Even before COVID-19, the waitlist for rehabilitation services in Ontario was at 80,000. Closing schools made this situation even worse, with kids unable to access in-school supports like physical and occupational therapy, and with hospitals closing “non-essential” services.

Last year, Holland Bloorview and others came together to create the Children’s Health Coalition. The Coalition, which includes all of Ontario’s children’s hospitals along with Children’s Mental Health Ontario and Empowered Kids Ontario, advocates for the mental and physical health and rehabilitation needs of all children. 

In September 2020, the Children’s Health Coalition hosted a town hall attended by Ontario’s Deputy Premier and Minister of Health, Christine Elliott, where coalition representatives advocated for a $375 million investment in children’s healthcare. More than 1800 people attended the town hall from across Ontario.

Holland Bloorview Family Leader Ivona Novak, whose five-year-old son Noah has a spinal cord injury as a result of cancer treatment, spoke at the town hall to advocate for kids with disabilities.

“These services are a lifeline for us, and the negative consequences of closures for kids like Noah are lifelong,” said Ivona in her address to Minister Elliott.

Seeing that the vaccination roll-out did not include a plan for vaccination for children, the Coalition called for the establishment of a provincial table to coordinate and ensure kids (and their families) were not forgotten. In response, the table was established by the Government of Ontario and Holland Bloorview's Director of Pharmacy, Nathan Ho, is one of its members.

In addition to increased investment in children’s health, the Coalition also calls for a return to in-person learning as the top priority for pandemic recovery.

“To support the mental wellness of all kids, the most critical thing we can do is to get them back to in-person learning and normal routines as soon as it is safe to do so,” say members of the Coalition.

What do we need to do to get back to school?

In June 2020, Holland Bloorview released its recommendations on a safe return to school for kids with disabilities to the Ministry of Education. The report was co-created by Holland Bloorview staff, families and the Bloorview School Authority, our onsite school for inpatients of all ages and children with disabilities in the community from Junior Kindergarten to Grade 1. The recommendations included a return-to-school consult with a child’s healthcare provider, clear masks for kids with hearing and speech impairments and optimized in-home learning for students unable to return to school because of medical complexities.

These recommendations follow an ongoing study of the impact of the pandemic on kids with disabilities, co-led by researchers at Holland Bloorview and SickKids. 

“Study participants are reporting worsening mood and anxiety since the onset of the pandemic. As school boards plan to reopen, children with disabilities must be considered,” says Dr. Evdokia Anagnostou, the co-lead of the hospital’s Autism Research Centre and the inaugural Dr. Stuart D. Sims Chair in Autism.

On the topic of school reopening, the Coalition says:

“There is no amount of mental health treatment that can replace the value of in-person learning as an antidote to the social isolation and distress facing families… The school year simply shouldn’t be written off.”

As a member of the Coalition, Holland Bloorview continues to advocate for the safe re-opening of schools in September 2021, helping all children get the care they need, at home, at school and in the community.

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