On January 12, Canada celebrated National Youth Day (separate from International Youth Day which falls on August 12), as we go into the 11th month of the COVID-19 pandemic. Toronto will be in the midst of a lockdown that began on November 23 and has been extended as an emergency.
These measures have cut into youths’ peer-group socializing in several ways. For one, a reduction or total loss of access to both public and commercial places where they like to hang out, such as malls, libraries, and community centres. As well, most school-based group activities like sports and the arts (theatre, choir) have been suspended. And public spaces are not necessarily more welcoming to teenagers during the pandemic: those who meet up with friends in parks sometimes find adults reacting to them with suspicion. For many, schooling itself has shifted either partly or completely online, curtailing in-person interactions even further.
Being cut off from friends matters to youth because they are in a critical process of forming their identities. According to an expert cited in an Alberta-based study, adolescents need interaction with peers “for social development, determining beliefs and forming healthy relationships as adults…Peers give kids the opportunity to try out different ways of being or thinking with a new group of individuals they’re not finding at home.”
We checked in with two people who have considerable insight on the wellbeing of youth and children here in St. James Town and the broader downtown east, and on how this is affected by the pandemic — Winchester Jr. and Sr. Public School Principal Rita Tsiotsikas, and youth mental health counsellor with The Neighbourhood Organization (TNO), Yusra Baloch.
A Principal’s perspective
Largely because it is a French immersion school, quite a high proportion of the students at Winchester Public — 88% — opted for in-person classes this past Fall. Principal Tsiotsikas informed us that, notwithstanding the fact that “some kids have been especially nervous around being in close contact with others” they have overall been “really happy to be back” since classes started up in September. This feeling seems to have persisted, as seen in the high attendance rate throughout the fall.
School personnel — teachers, principals, caretakers, and counsellors — have worked extra hard during the pandemic to make the fall semester safe for all concerned, by carefully planning, teaching and monitoring a great many complex protocols. These include procedures for sequential group entry and exit of the building in the mornings and afternoons, alternating use of the school yard for outdoor recreation, and safe techniques for eating lunch with minimal talking during the 15 minutes when their masks are replaced with a visor. With some weary laughter, Principal Tsiotsikas reflects that “thinking all of this through” was quite time consuming. But what seemed very daunting to her in August, has proven possible and has paid off in the fact they’ve been able to stay open. “I’m almost afraid to say this out loud as I tap on wood, I believe at this point, it is working,” she says. Now that the routines are in place, she says, “Touch wood, it feels really calm in the building.”
It also helps that the students are highly adaptive to the new rules. They cooperate and collaborate with the staff, acting as eyes and ears to achieve adherence to health and safety protocols, such as correct mask-wearing.
Asked what she would advise parents, children and youth of St. James Town to help cope with the pandemic-related challenges ahead, Principal Tsiotsikas hopes for a continuation of the extraordinary degree of patience and “caring for each other” that she has seen from the kids’ parents. In her eight years being Principal at Winchester, “this has been probably the kindest year we have ever had. Parents are so patient with each other. Everybody is so grateful to be back. And just the generosity I see from families when I say ‘I’m waiting for the results from this classroom and I think it’s best we keep everybody at home for a day.’ We have to continue trusting that if we look after each other that we’ll be okay.” She has been very moved by “how much this community trusts us and gives us the sense of appreciation; you feel humbled by it and want to work harder for it.”
Winchester school’s social worker and psychologist offer workshops to families and kids in response to needs and issues that have arisen, from accessing and understanding the Toronto Public Health website, to wellness workshops and “how to be okay” during this difficult time. The school also reaches out to agencies that serve St. James Town and enlists their support for helping the kids deal with particular kinds of future-oriented worries. For example, the intermediate kids, concerned about their transition to high-school given they cannot make site visits, will receive virtual workshops in the new year on these kinds of issues.
Principal Tsiotsikas has also heard from younger kids who wonder about how they will ever again “share a ball in gym class” or have those classes indoors, when they have been told for months how unsafe this is during the pandemic. Thinking ahead to when pandemic restrictions loosen, she reflects, “We will just have to relearn how to be in the same space again with each other. We’ll need to revisit all those skills. There’s a certain amount of fear that we need to help them manage, not to unlearn it, but put it into perspective.”
A youth-mental health worker perspective
Principal Tsiotsikas echoes others who have commented that St. James Town is rich in resources – organizations, programs, supports. Among the services that exist for youth is mental health counselling provided through The Neighbourhood Organization (TNO). This includes specialized support for newcomers and refugees. It is to youth (mostly teens) in these categories that Yusra Baloch offers both one-on-one counselling and group workshops on different mental health topics.
From the time she began her position as a youth mental health counsellor with TNO, serving newcomer and refugee youth mainly in St. James Town, Thorncliffe Park, and Flemington, Yusra could see strides in their mental wellbeing: “A definite issue with a lot of newcomer and refugee youth is that stigma around mental health, so even reaching out and getting that support is pretty big. At the beginning they’re very hesitant. When they start attending the workshops, then they start building that rapport with me, that’s when they come in and say hey, I need to talk with you, I need support. I think that’s a big success…They begin to open up and engage in conversations about mental health.”
When the pandemic was declared, all TNO’s workshops and counselling services went online. Now, isolation from peers, and the many challenges of online schooling, including not having the necessary technology, became the main concerns expressed by the youth that Yusra was connecting with through phone or online. In addition, recent arrival to Canada compounded these issues for some kids. Several youths she works with arrived shortly before the pandemic was declared. “Imagine coming here and then all of a sudden schools are closed. It just brings so many more difficulties and challenges into their lives.”
The online group workshops Yusra provides, aimed at addressing the problem of isolation, “have benefited a lot of the youth I work with.” But she acknowledges that not being able to meet with her in person, and having few alternatives to talking from their homes, may impede some youths’ ability to take advantage of the services: “They might not feel comfortable speaking while they’re at home about what they’re going through, and opening up about what their mental health challenges are.” Nevertheless, Yusra feels that when the pandemic restrictions are lifted, online counselling should continue to be offered, because for many it actually makes access easier. She points out that whereas the in-person services TNO offers are attended by youth in specific neighbourhoods, online services don’t have that kind of geographic limitation.
Yusra’s pandemic-coping advice to youth and their parents: “Reach out and get the support. It’s so important. For a lot of people dealing with mental health they feel like they’re the only ones going through it, and I think that impacts your mental health even more. Attending workshops or having that one-on-one support is very beneficial…I run weekly workshops in terms of coping during COVID, and if they need additional resources, I can also provide them.” She also calls upon everyone in the community to make kids aware of the resources that exist, such as the programs TNO offers. For youth that are interested in connecting with Yusra, she can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and by phone at 416-381-6310.