“Hall walkers.” That is the term used by my friend, Kevin, a high school administrator in Toronto, to describe students who want to see friends at school but can’t quite seem to make it all the way through classes. They wander the halls until the next class begins or hang around outside the school, looking for another kid to talk to. Hall walkers tend to have lower grades, incomplete homework and trouble outside of school, leading to increased dropout rates and then worse outcomes in the post-high school years.
There have always been hall walkers, Kevin tells me, but their numbers have increased since the pandemic. Schools are in crisis – and not just because of the hall walkers. Anxiety, violence, chronic absenteeism, course failure and bullying are among the problems facing students.
On average, Canadian schools were closed for 51 weeks during the pandemic. Here in Toronto, as in many places, extra-curricular activities were curtailed for an additional year. With one of the highest rates of school closures globally, Canada, like other Western nations, is finding that learning “essentially stalled during the pandemic,” in the words of a report by Education Canada. Low-income students have been impacted more than their middle class and affluent peers.
But while there has been much documentation of the academic losses that children experienced, there’s been less discussion about the emotional outcomes, partly because we live in a data-driven society. After all, emotional health can’t be quickly quantified by reviewing test scores. Indeed, it will take decades to collect data on the pandemic’s impact on children’s long-term mental health.
But we can’t afford to wait.
Uncovering pandemic grief
I spoke with pediatric neuropsychologist Jennifer Linton Reesman, who has co-authored a new book, Altered Trajectories: How the COVID-19 Pandemic Impacted Children’s Education, Mental Health and Neurodevelopment, with Molly Colvin and Tannahill Glen. Like me, Reesman is the mom of a teenager. She also counsels teens and families, something she has been doing since before the pandemic.
I told Reesman about the Toronto experience in 2021 and 2022, where extra-curricular sports and high school graduation ceremonies were cancelled and mandates at many day camps excluded children who were not vaccinated against COVID. These experiences contributed to pandemic fatigue for some families I know and eroded trust in public health for others. According to the 2023 CanTrust Index survey, public trust in public health plummeted to 22 per cent in 2021 and 2022, with a rebound to 37 per cent this year, although overall trust levels are lower for adults under age 26.
Reesman says it’s crucial to “look forward, not relitigate the past,” because when we look back on pandemic-era decisions, we inevitably end up assessing which restrictions were worth it, a highly subjective and overwhelming conversation in our polarized world. But we can’t allow our fear of controversy to stop us from talking with our children about the pandemic years, says Reesman. In fact, it’s necessary to their mental health for the adults in their lives to acknowledge that pandemic grief is real and help show a way forward.
“We need to make sure we provide kids with experiences to help acknowledge what happened,” she says, “to integrate that knowledge into the assessment of the current situation.”
The transition to high school
Research from People for Education (PFE) reveals that since the pandemic, there has been a dearth of teachers and mental health staff in schools, as well as a decline in kids’ mental health. PFE’s survey responses from 1,044 schools across the 72 publicly funded boards in Ontario found that in the 2021-22 school year, 90 per cent of principals said they were struggling to fill staff positions; more than half cited a decline in mental health and well-being supports for students. According to PFE, both problems continued into the 2022-23 school year and this year as well.
The report showed a significant decline in students’ reporting their mental health as “very good,” from 73 per cent in 2019 to 61 per cent in 2022. Toronto Public Health (TPH) reported in 2023 that there was a nearly 30 per cent increase in emergency department visits related to self-harm among children and youth. The TPH report cited data from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health showing that 59 per cent of Ontario students stated that the pandemic has made them feel “depressed about the future,” with 39 per cent reporting that it has made their mental health worse.
59 per cent of Ontario students stated that the pandemic has made them feel “depressed about the future.”
Just as school administrators are struggling to meet baseline staffing, students have been entering high school with higher needs. Reesman says this may be because they missed earlier developmental opportunities, noting that as they reach puberty, children need to build skills in executive functioning such as organizing their time and responsibilities, as well as the development of “inhibitory control systems,” that distinguish the behaviour of an elementary student from a high schooler. Many students now entering high school missed those middle school moments to try, fail, learn and then succeed in these areas.
“Pandemic [restrictions] removed the environmental demands of school, such as working with classmates, managing conflicts and resolving them,” she says. “They were ready, but they didn’t have the opportunities.”
Where do we go from here?
Schools need more mental health supports on site, but to Reesman, fixing the problem will require thinking outside the box. With a dearth of mental health staff as well as funding limits, she says we will need to explore additional options beyond the “one-therapist-one-child” model.
“We need to think differently about how we can use things like group therapy, but from a broader basis. For example, [exploring] how we can integrate children who were disconnected from positive supports, such as team sports, which is very mental health protective.”
Reesman encourages districts to invest not only in therapists but in youth coaches and teams to provide children with supportive adult figures. Sports, whether competitive or not, are a way to recognize togetherness and achievements, giving kids the praise that helps them feel proud and strive to become more engaged.
Many principals, she observes, have realized they need to double down on community building through both extracurriculars and the “micro events” that act to build community. These include field trips, dances, movies, school traditions and taking the opportunity to add events to make up for what has been lost. But some school leaders are struggling to add these activities, especially when students are becoming harder to manage, noting they don’t have the capacity for these or have lost the “muscle memory” to keep them up.
“There’s a lot of labour that goes in to make these events happen,” Reesman told me, “but it’s important.”
They say hindsight is 20/20 – and there is no shortage of hindsight about 2020. Can public health and policymakers use this reflective moment to build better supports for children? Where do parents and community members fit in? Can we help schools have more energy to build connections, as our kids navigate high school? Our schools need more resources, but we also need to maximize the resources we have, including patience.
During the pandemic, it was often said that the children would be resilient. But perhaps that was more of a comfortable refrain than a reality. The hall walkers, the no-shows and many other high schoolers are not OK – and in a few short years they’ll walk out the doors of their high schools into the world of adulthood. All of us adults must find the solutions to help them thrive.