Ask an expert: Healthy Populations Institute’s Sara Kirk on supporting school children returning to class

- September 4, 2020

Everyone will be anxious, especially over those first few weeks as new routines have to be established or adjustments made, says Dr. Kirk. (Photo by Arthur Krijgsman from Pexels)
Everyone will be anxious, especially over those first few weeks as new routines have to be established or adjustments made, says Dr. Kirk. (Photo by Arthur Krijgsman from Pexels)

After months of sheltering in place and physical distancing, many elementary, middle- and high-school children will be heading back to the classroom next week. Due to the ongoing pandemic, academic and extracurricular programming will look a lot different than what students have been used to in years past.  

Nova Scotia's back-to-school plan, which is designed to limit the spread of COVID-19, contains a number of significant changes to school programming — changes include grouping students into class bubbles, distancing in classrooms, and staggered lunches and recesses. Lunches will be served to students at their desks and masks will be mandatory for students in Grades 4-12, while they are in school hallways, and on buses.

While these protocols are necessary to protect everyone's health and safety, students may need a bit of extra support coping with these changes. We asked Sara Kirk, professor in Dalhousie’s School of Health and Human Performance and scientific director of the Healthy Populations Institute, to provide us with some perspective on the challenges students may face when they return to school and how parents and educators can help mitigate negative impacts on their students’ and children’s health and well-being.

From your perspective, how will the pandemic and its impacts on educational and extracurricular programming impact young students’ health and well-being?    

Since the pandemic began, we have been hearing over and over how important it is to protect the health and well-being of our children and youth. This is a stressful time for everybody, with health and economic challenges being on the minds of many adults as we deal with the implications of the pandemic. If adults are anxious, children will pick up on that, even if they don’t understand the implications. I am particularly interested in how our environments influence food and physical activity behaviours, and I use a settings-based approach to understand this. The impacts of the pandemic on healthy eating and physical activity were clear early on. Many children across Canada rely on school food programs — around one in seven Canadians live in a household where food insecurity is a problem. With schools closing in March, school food programs were also cancelled or required major changes to continue in a way that adhered to the prevailing public health directives while still reaching vulnerable families.

My Dalhousie colleague, Sarah Moore, led a national study on the impact of the pandemic on movement and play behaviours of children across Canada. We know that even before the pandemic, children and youth were struggling to meet Canadian movement guidelines and the restrictions that were imposed in March 2020 exacerbated this, with families spending less time being active and more time being sedentary. This isn’t surprising given restrictions that were introduced in public spaces and the need to ensure physical distancing.

What do you think some of the key challenges will be for students as they return to school?  

It is well known that healthy children learn better, so we can anticipate that the disruptions faced by families will impact health and academic outcomes. The question is, by how much? We don’t yet know the answer to that.

School routines will undoubtedly be disrupted — we already know that in schools across the country, there will be limitations on how students can move around their environments. Cafeterias may not operate fully, or food may be delivered to a class to be eaten at students' desks. Extracurricular or sporting activities might not happen, given the risks of students mixing across different bubbles or cohorts. There are also concerns regarding school buildings with inadequate ventilation that are particularly challenging, given what is known about how COVID-19 is spread.  

Everyone will be anxious, especially over those first few weeks as new routines have to be established or adjustments made as theory becomes practice. At this stage, it is all trial and error with a generous helping of guesswork. There are learnings that we can take from other countries, like Scotland, that have returned to school already, and from our societal response to other diseases, like tuberculosis (TB), which sparked an outdoor school movement over a century ago. My own father, whose mother died of TB when he was just five years old, talked often about his early schooling in a school for students considered vulnerable to TB, where much of his day was spent outdoors in all weathers as a precaution against that disease.

How can students be best supported through these challenges?

Although the upcoming weeks will undoubtedly be nerve-wracking, there are things that we all can do to protect the health and well-being of children and youth. First and foremost, we need to engage young people in conversations about the return to school. We have not necessarily done a good job of that so far, but they deserve a voice in the discussions as well. We are learning a lot about the importance of spending more time outside and there are ways that this can be facilitated, like encouraging students to walk or wheel to school if they live close enough, and making it safe for them to do so, for example, by closing streets or reducing traffic speeds around schools. Classrooms can be moved outside if there is adequate space to accommodate this. There are some amazing examples of outdoor education across the world and in our own backyard. In Lunenburg, for example, students have been engaged in an Active Smarter Kids pilot project, which originated in Norway. It is a model for curriculum delivery that involves the incorporation of simple physical activities into the delivery of academic lessons like math, science and social studies. The outcomes of the pilot have been positive. I have been vocal for a few years now about the need for a national school food program. Canada is one of the only industrialized countries without one, and the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted school food as an essential public good. The national Coalition for Healthy School Food is lobbying the federal government to fund this, something we should all support given the impressive and demonstrated return on investment this would bring to Canada.

Most of all, and this applies to everyone, be kind to each other. It is a stressful time and mistakes will be made because we are human. But when we work together, listen to each other and take care of each other, we can achieve a lot.


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