The return to school during the pandemic has not been easy for any child, whether they’re learning virtually or in person. There are significant challenges in maintaining their health, safety, and wellbeing both at home and at school.
We know that the pandemic has made many challenges in our communities much worse. For youth in low-income neighbourhoods, for rural youth, for kids in unstable and violent homes, and for kids at risk of falling behind in school, COVID-19 has meant even greater challenges than before— and the threat of even worse outcomes.
A community-wide effort
When COVID-19 first entered our communities in early March, Ottawa Public Health requested that United Way East Ontario take action and work with local social services agencies and local partners to address the social needs in our communities.
Since then, United Way East Ontario has been bringing together the COVID-19 Community Response Table: a group of public health authorities, municipalities, frontline social service agencies, corporate partners, elected officials from all levels of government, and many others committed to supporting people through the effects of COVID-19 on our communities.
By Michael Allen
President and CEO,
United Way East Ontario
This week’s table focused on safe engagement in school and learning. As a community, we have the tools to address the inequitable impact of COVID-19 on young people—but it requires collaboration, sharing of knowledge, and enhancing our capacity so no child gets left behind.
As COVID-19 cases in our communities rise to record-breaking levels, it is crucial that we put the safety, mental health and wellbeing of kids first. This includes stopping the spread of the pandemic, keeping schools open, and preventing vulnerable youth from falling behind.
Balancing education and safety
Brett Reynolds, Associate Director of Education for the Ottawa Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) and Co-Chair of the Ottawa Child and Youth Initiative (OCYI), spoke about how school boards spent the summer adapting as best they could to the return to school. This included setting up digital learning infrastructure and ensuring schools themselves would be safe.
Despite the high concern for in-school transmission of COVID-19, there have only been 55 positive student cases out of more than 60,000 students attending schools in person in the OCDSB. Transmission in a school setting has only happened once.
Brett sees this as a huge success, but he acknowledges that things still aren’t anywhere close to normal.
“We haven’t really talked about learning in education this fall as much as we normally do,” said Brett. “In a normal year we talk about how we improve teaching and learning, this year the focus has really been managing covid and keeping kids safe.”
Brett also worries about the nearly 1,000 students who are home by choice, but are not actively engaged in virtual schooling, making it hard to monitor their safety and quality of learning. Without in-person connections, it’s harder to keep an eye on students who may be disengaged or who start to fall into dangerous behaviours like substance use.
Stephen Sliwa, Director of Education for the Upper Canada District School Board and Tom D’Amico, Director of Education for the Ottawa Catholic School Board echoed sentiments of anxiety about the lag in learning that may have already started for many students, and how to support families through difficult circumstances at home.
Stephen and Tom both added that, in addition to the loss of learning many students experienced from March to September, there is also a significant social impact. Kids are having difficulty adjusting to new routines, and the isolation of COVID-19 has significantly affected their mental health.
Using data to identify the pain points
Danielle Vernooy of the Ottawa Child and Youth Initiative (OCYI) talked about how OCYI has been collecting surveys from the 80+ community organizations in Ottawa that support the wellbeing of children and youth (after-school programs, homework clubs, youth centres, etc), to see how COVID-19 has impacted programs.
OCYI’s data showed that the priorities they need to focus on are:
Health and safety
There are challenges with providing the best service while ensuring physical distancing and safety, finding ways to communicate important and up-to-date public health messages directly to children and youth, hearing reports of increased substance use by parents or caregivers, and a lack of proper nutrition opportunities for kids.
Additionally, more support is needed to ensure safety protocols are being followed and adjusted: eg. using and disposing of PPE, conducting first aid safely, adjusting sick leave capabilities, and implementing proper contact tracing protocols to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
Virtual learning and engagement
- Programs see better engagement with kids when the virtual programming is interactive, well-attended and is run by a group or leader they have a rapport with. Connectivity, bandwidth, internet speed and not having proper devices are barriers for organizations to implement strong and beneficial virtual programming.
Many kids are also tired of needing to connect via a screen.
- Kids have been and still are socially isolated and the connections built virtually are not as impactful as in-person connections. Programs are currently seeing tearful outbursts and low moods, changes in self-esteem, kids becoming withdrawn, lack of engagement, less energy, disruptive behaviours, and anger.
With all these findings, OCYI has started implementing training and communications tools for frontline programs, sharing best practices and resources, and bringing program leads together to keep their connections to youth strong and flexible.
Increased challenges in low-income communities
This summer, United Way East Ontario and the Ottawa Coalition of Community Houses conducted a needs assessment in the Confederation Court and Banff Avenue community housing neighbourhoods — communities with high numbers of newcomer families and single-parent households. Beth Tooley, Coalition Coordinator for the Ottawa Coalition of Community Houses, shared how community houses are responding to the impacts of COVID-19 in these high-needs neighbourhoods.
There are many challenges for low-income children that affect their engagement and ability to succeed in a virtual learning environment:
- Low-income households often can’t afford proper internet connectivity and devices to ensure the best virtual learning experience for kids.
- Many vulnerable youth rely on school meal programs for healthy food, and these programs aren’t operating during COVID-19.
- Kids are bored and tired of spending so much time on their screens. Echoing OCYI’s findings, Beth noted that 75 per cent of youth do not enjoy virtual programs.
- Other members of the home, like parents and caregivers, are experiencing anxiety from the pandemic. There is a lack of resources for families living in crisis, and this anxiety trickles down to affect kids’ well-being.
- Parents may not be in a position to help with schoolwork because of language barriers or work demands, leading to further disengagement from kids.
- Many families do not have an adequate supply of masks, which prevents kids from attending school or after school programs.
In the spirit that comes with the collaboration between community houses, Beth shared that they are well-prepared if public health restrictions are tightened again. They found success in meeting kids where they are and strengthening the initiatives that were well-received among kids:
- While kids didn’t love virtual programming, they did find value in virtual tutoring and coding programs, so the Coalition has leaned into these opportunities
- Having community houses directly in the neighbourhoods where kids live means staff can do window visits, walk through the community to see which kids are not in school, etc.
- Organizing outdoor activities and small-group in-person programming to keep kids engaged when it’s safe
- Delivering at-home STEM kits to keep kids learning in an interactive way. Since April they’ve delivered 1,000+ STEM kits every two weeks
- Device lending, mask distribution (more than 8,000+ masks distributed to kids in partnership with the Human Needs Task Force and United Way) and food deliveries alongside door-to-door wellness checks with the overall goal of keeping kids safe and connected.
Keeping the doors open to in-person programs
Medin Admasu, Chief Programs Officer for Boys and Girls Clubs of Ottawa (BGC) shared insights on how BGC has adapted to meet the needs of kids over the past several months by re-opening their after school programs both physically and virtually.
“[Before COVID-19,] the demand was always high [for our services], we used to have to turn people away,” Medin said. “We’ve been really challenged and we have to convince our communities, most of them being in vulnerable situations, that they can trust us as we’re re-engaging with them.”
BGCO has been working with the City of Ottawa’s Integrated Neighborhood Services Team, Ottawa Public Health, and the Provincial Youth Outreach Workers to launch the Neighbourhood Ambassador Program. The aim of the program is to reach kids in high-needs neighbourhoods like Herongate, Overbrook, Vanier, and Bayshore to share COVID wise practices, increase their access to community resources and to take action on their concerns about what they are going through during this time.
Medin also shared lessons BGCO learned to inform other programs looking to reopen with in-person activities:
- Child and youth workers have had to scale up their outreach in order to connect with kids who have disappeared from their clubhouses
- Every plan or approach should be put in place with two to three back-up approaches if the first attempt doesn’t work. This accounts for changing public health guidelines and strategies that may not click with kids
- Mentorship and familiarity is a huge draw for kids: having familiar faces on virtual platforms, in person at programming, in the communities where kids are, etc. Trust is a big factor in connecting authentically with kids across multiple platforms
- Long-standing social challenges are still present in communities, and are higher priority now. Kids also feel household anxieties around finances and employment. Programs need to be prepared to help kids with social and mental health challenges.
The added challenges in rural communities
Andrew Wilson, Program Coordinator for YAK Youth Services Lanark County echoed the other presenters that kids are simply “Zoomed out,” so connecting with them requires persistence and creativity.
In rural communities, transportation and internet connectivity have presented barriers for many families even before COVID-19.
“A lot of kids are basically just bussing in and bussing out and have a real lack of interaction outside of school,” said Andrew.
“For other children that are just doing virtual learning, if they live outside of town, they’re basically stranded.”
Andrew stressed three areas of focus that have been helpful in connecting with youth:
- Forming a coalition with other youth centres and youth programs across Lanark County has been critical to help cross-promote programming. Virtual programs, when used, means kids across broad areas can access the resource.
- Increasing digital capabilities for kids, but also for the programs themselves. Many youth centres have unreliable internet to the point where they aren’t able to host virtual programming. Procuring devices has been important to make sure there’s no interruption in service.
- Focusing on interactive programming and letting the kids lead the direction they take. Andrew noted that kids were engaged in “virtual clubs” that focused on a particular topic (e.g. virtual club for kids interested in basketball to talk about the NBA, build fantasy teams together, etc.) which helped the centre build trust with the participants.
- Another successful program included delivering meal kits for kids to their homes, and hosting virtual cooking classes which engaged them in a more interactive way with nutrition and social activities.
- Presenters and facilitators leading online programs need to be trained and prepared, otherwise kids disengage and don’t come back. Investing in the abilities of program leaders to deliver on effective programming.
“We can’t afford to wait until the end of the pandemic”
The purpose of the COVID-19 Community Response Table is to drive collaboration, and to address the inequitable impact of the pandemic on our communities. All partners present at the table meeting want to ensure every child has the chance to succeed in school and in life, no matter their circumstances.
Mohamed Sofa, Director of Community Initiatives at United Way East Ontario summarized key recommendations to help youth-serving organizations react to the challenging landscape they are faced with:
- Build the capacity of community agencies to deliver meaningful and engaging online programming
- Partners at the table saw success with interactive, hybrid programs that mix online and in-person interaction (STEM kits, cook-at-home meal kits), programming with an educational purpose (online tutoring) and programs that focused on social interaction and trust.
- Invest in coordination
- By sharing resources and building partnerships (the way OCYI and youth centres in Lanark County have started to do), the network of organizations can catch up and adapt more quickly
- Invest in monitoring and data
- We must keep our finger on the pulse of how our efforts are working. By measuring the impact of programs and of in-school learning, we can see areas of weakness early on and pivot quickly.
Marginalized children are struggling, and they need our help now. The coming months will only bring new risks and challenges for the most vulnerable youth across our region.
The good news is we are many months into this work already. Our commitment is to be adaptable in our response and focused on the best possible outcomes for children and youth in our communities.
Putting appropriate resources in place
Christine Lauzon-Foley, Senior Director of Policy, Planning and Investment at United Way East Ontario, Fateema Sayani, Director of Donor Engagement at the Ottawa Community Foundation, and Tatjana Zivanovic, Operations Manager of Emergency Management in Eastern Ontario at Canadian Red Cross provided updates on upcoming funding opportunities for local charities and nonprofits.
- A new round of Emergency Community Support Funding is available through United Way East Ontario until the end of October. A total of $1.2 million is available to invest, with priority focus on people with disabilities, women and girls, minority language populations and Chinese and racialized communities.
- Emergency Community Support Funding is also available through the Ottawa Community Foundation (OCF) and Canadian Red Cross (CRC). CRC is also supporting charities and nonprofits by distributing personal protective equipment and training on the prevention of disease transmission.
- Ottawa Community Foundation will soon release funding for food systems and food security initiatives in Ottawa.
Jeremy Roberts, MPP for Ottawa West-Nepean and Sam Oosterhoff, MPP for Niagara-West and Parliamentary Assistant for the Minister of Education closed the meeting with a continued commitment to bring key issues back to the legislature and Ministry of Education in pursuit of better outcomes for youth.
There is no absence of bold, creative solutions at our fingertips that can lift up the most vulnerable and create more equitable communities. Our mission is to work together, through a lens of social justice, to build a better future for everyone.
When we join together, share our resources, and learn from each other, we can make that future a reality.
In early March, in partnership with Ottawa Public Health and dozens of organizations across the community sector, United Way launched an initiative to help support the most vulnerable in response to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) affecting our region. This collaboration has enabled local problem solving, prioritization of needs, and collaboration. To learn more about supporting the initiative, or if you require community service assistance, please visit unitedwayeo.ca/covid19.