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While the financial and economic costs of the COVID-19 pandemic have been widely discussed and cannot be understated, I believe we also need to pay more attention to the impacts on students and young people in the territory. From children who are preschool age, to school age, to young adults recently graduating, heading to university or entering the workforce, the impacts have been diverse and profound.
For the most part, younger students have been spared some of the more negative impacts that those in the south have experienced. While in-person schooling has proceeded for younger students, the reduction of recreational opportunities and reduced social contact is undoubtedly having negative effects. As a parent of young children, I understand this well.
Far more concerning than these impacts though, are those felt by students in Whitehorse high schools. The Yukon schooling model which allows students to attend in-person classes part of the time, and at-home learning for the rest, has been extremely challenging for many. In this, the Yukon is not unique from other jurisdictions using hybrid or at-home learning. Non-governmental organizations and universities here in Canada are ringing the alarm bell about what this will mean for these students.
The academic decline of many students is an obvious concern. In particular, the at-home learning has exacerbated the challenges of students who were already struggling. What is even more concerning is the increased rates of mental health issues and eating disorders amongst high school students. Some experts have suggested that mental health issues represent a “shadow pandemic” for youth. This is a real challenge that we, as a territory, need to focus our efforts on to overcome.
For those who have recently graduated, are attending university now, or who are trying to enter the job market, the landscape is difficult. Many of the industries in the Yukon that are most severely impacted by the pandemic, such as tourism and hospitality, are where many young people look for work. Developing patterns of financial saving or tackling student debt is difficult at the best of times, but in this climate the lasting adverse effects could be devastating.
What all of this means is that we run the risk of saddling this generation with problems that will stretch well beyond the end of this pandemic. Policy makers need to ensure that this does not become a “lost generation.”
Here in the Yukon, we have an opportunity to mitigate some of the more worrisome impacts. Recently, the Department of Education announced that they are hiring additional teachers to help address the impacts on student learning. This is a good first step, but it needs to become one part of a broader and comprehensive education recovery strategy that will put this generation of learners back on solid footing. At the centre of this needs to be a safe return to full-time, in-person learning.
To quote from a recent report by a group of experts brought together by the Hospital for Sick Kids and the University of Toronto, online learning should be “as time-limited as possible.” They state clearly that “it is our strong opinion that an in-person school model with robust application of the recommended risk mitigation interventions is the best option from an overall health and learning perspective for children of all ages.” Whatever other restrictions that are needed to protect public health more generally, reducing in-person learning should be a last resort.
The Government must also reconsider its changes to the Individualized Education Plans. As local advocates have noted, this will affect students who already struggle in our current academic system. Now does not seem like a good time to tinker with the supports for our most vulnerable learners. Further, additional resources for mental health including counselling, alcohol and drug abuse support, and suicide prevention should be targeted specifically at the youth of this generation. These issues are not new to the Yukon, but they have become acute during the pandemic and need to be addressed with action and urgency.
In addition, serious thought needs to be given to bringing back sport and the arts in a more meaningful way. These activities offer much needed physical and mental health benefits to youth that cannot be overstated. While we should be prepared to scale back in the face of an outbreak, youth sports and recreation should be a priority. If this requires adults to make sacrifices of gym-time, ice-time or anything else, I’m sure adults will agree that our youth are worth it.
There has been a lot of attention paid to the need for economic recovery and to supporting our private sector – something I certainly feel strongly about. While we need a strong economy with jobs and opportunities for all Yukoners, we also need to ensure that we are giving the future of our territory – our youth – the support necessary to succeed and build a better Yukon. It is critical that we consider the need for educational recovery, particularly for those students and youth most affected.
The Yukon has been spared many of the impacts that other parts of the country and globe have been subjected to throughout this pandemic. I believe that better is possible and if we can tackle some of the more serious effects that this pandemic has had on our youth, we will be well-positioned to launch a meaningful economic recovery that benefits all Yukoners.