Canada’s private schools offer safe and supportive haven during the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic is having devastating effects on the hearts and minds of Canadian children and their families. As new research links the pandemic with declining mental health and well-being of Canada’s youth, private schools from coast to coast are telling a different story – one of optimism and opportunity.
Educators and staff with The Linden School, an all-girl day school in Toronto for kindergarten through to Grade 12, has for many years taken an all-inclusive and research-informed approach to helping students and parents navigate uncertainty and change. For Linden, learning is deeply personal. According to principal Tara Silver, research helps identify specific issues faced by the students.
We use technology to understand very specific issues our students are having and that allows us to respond faster,” Silver says. “For us it’s about equity, collaborative learning, and meeting children where they’re at.”
At The Linden School, keeping the lines of communication open with parents has made all the difference throughout the pandemic.
“We have weekly morning sessions with parents and continuously invite their recommendations for things we can do,” Silver says. “A big part of it is creating a low-stress environment for our students to be able to review and practise some of the skills they may not have fully grasped in a virtual environment.”
Teachers are also encouraging students to enjoy communing in the outdoors. This winter the school’s younger students and teachers have been enjoying snow yoga and wellness circles, as well as urban hikes along trails near the campus.
Social isolation is emerging as a key issue for Canada’s young learners. Published in European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, the article ‘Mostly worse, occasionally better: impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of Canadian children and adolescents’ is based on research at the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto. It shows a large majority of children and youth experienced harm to their mental health during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Greater stress from social isolation, including both the cancellation of important events and the loss of in-person social interactions, was strongly associated with mental health deterioration.
Throughout the pandemic, students at Brentwood College School have continued to enjoy safe, social interactions immersed in nature and the sea on Vancouver Island.
“When this all started in 2020, our school leaders met to develop strategies for the coming year living and working with COVID-19,” says Liam Sullivan, deputy head, student life for Brentwood. “We knew that the magic of Brentwood is being on the grounds, learning and teaching in-person, face-to face and we remained committed to this approach. We also established routines, offering some predictability for the students each day. What we quickly learned is that boring is the new cool.”
Brentwood is also deliberately changing the narrative from mental illness to mental wellness. In the past year, Sullivan has been working with a team, supported by the health centre, to develop a wellness framework.
“It’s about developing an understanding that it is normal to have stresses in your life and how to accentuate the positive,” Sullivan says. “What we are seeing is a greater awareness of mental health. Students and parents are understanding the language and the warning signs. We’re on this journey together. It’s not just a Brentwood journey but a societal journey.”
Sullivan says the school has been able to have productive conversations with parents and students to develop common strategies to help students – either on campus with counsellors and nutrition experts or in crisis situations where parents ensure they get the one-on-one support they need.
“There’s an authenticity when you’re around your students and living in the same community. It’s a relationship-building environment,” Sullivan says.
A policy briefing from the Royal Society of Canada’s Task Force on COVID-19, Children and Schools During COVID-19 and Beyond: Engagement and Connection Through Opportunity, calls for educators to take steps to reduce inequities, saying that schools cannot solve all of society’s problems, but that they are a place where inequities can be identified and acknowledged. The recommendation goes on to say that: “We must ensure that schools do not magnify existing inequities, and that curriculum and assessment actively draw on and reward diverse backgrounds, settings, and experiences.”
One can look to The Linden School for leadership when it comes to celebrating differences: it’s been at the core of school’s beliefs and practices since day one. “We know from decades of research on gender and learning that girls flourish in a collaborative learning environment, and we foster this through our pedagogy and a strong sense of community,” Silver says. “Our curriculum helps students view the world through multiple lenses to uncover the complex intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality and ability.”
Linden has a long history of designing and implementing policies that ensure the school culture does not call out existing inequities among its students. The school has a gender inclusion policy that informs everything from admissions to code of conduct and staff training. And, thanks to a generous bursary program, students from low-income families can experience a Linden education.
With small class sizes and a holistic, inclusive approach to the well-being of its students, Canada’s private schools are modelling the kinds of behaviours and attitudes that help young learners withstand the ups and downs of life now and in the future.
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