Much to fix in schools – we are in this together


Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth
OCDSB Trustee, Zone 9

Nili Kaplan-Myrth


As a physician, I ask my young patients at this time of year how their first month of the school year has gone, whether they’ve made new friends, how they are enjoying their classes, what extracurricular activities they enjoy, whether they have a part-time job. I query about bullying, changes in appetite or sleep.

Sometimes I’ll be told about a child who refuses to go to school. I ask the parent or guardian about educational and mental health supports, if the student has an individual education plan for learning disabilities or neurodiversity. This is a conversation that is repeated between family doctors, paediatricians or nurse practitioners and families from the time children enter kindergarten until they graduate high school. In my little clinic in the Glebe, I’ve known many students since infancy; in most cases I also take care of their siblings, parents, even grandparents. So all is well and good, right?

No, it isn’t.

Sadly, 80,000 people in the Ottawa area do not have primary care. This is main element of the “healthcare crisis.” Some families can afford to pay for private care. That takes physicians, nurses and staff out of public care and exacerbates the problem. Emergency departments are overwhelmed, overrun, understaffed and ill-equipped to manage the psychosocial issues that we address in primary care. If a child is struggling, seeking mental health care or psycho-educational support depends on deep pockets or private insurance.

And can we even “fix” the issues that we’re presented with? It is much easier to treat an ear infection than it is to help a five-year-old who cannot afford a psych ed assessment or a 12-year-old whose dysregulation has left their family and educators exhausted.

Healthcare is not the only issue I’m hearing about an Ottawa Carleton District School Board trustee. There are pleas to fix the school bus shortages. Students enrolled in programs, including at Glebe Collegiate, cannot get to school. That is an ongoing, complex issue.

Families also worry because their children are (re)infected with COVID-19 and want to know why we aren’t doing more to mitigate spread of disease in our schools. We are facing the triple threat of influenza, RSV and COVID-19. My motion to evaluate air quality and commit to improvements in ventilation was approved by the board in September, but that is a long-term strategy. We need to address ventilation immediately – think HEPA filters, open windows, monitoring C02 levels. Ottawa Public Health has asked people to mask indoors, to get flu shots (available in early October) and the new COVID-19 vaccine when it is available – everyone six months and older will be eligible.

There is frustration, too, about dysregulation in classrooms, shortage of educational assistants, student and staff absences and classroom reorganization due to changes in enrolment. Again, these issues stem from decades of systemic provincial underfunding. It will take political will and financial commitment to address them.

Finally, patients and constituents are upset by the rise in bigotry in Ottawa and across Canada. Some children and youth who identify as transgender, non-binary or two-spirit have supportive families at home. Others don’t. It is an honour to care for many 2SLGBTQIA patients. It is disconcerting each time we see people marching in the streets in opposition to 2SLGBTQIA rights. We know that many students rely on school as a safe space. Just as a physician must practise patient-centred care and respect the gender identity of our patients, teachers’ unions have unequivocally asserted that 2SLGBTQIA students must feel safe and supported in educational settings. Fortunately, the OCDSB, Mayor Sutcliffe, MPPs, MPs and our prime minister reiterate that message. The “No Space for Hate” message was loud and clear across our country on September 20.

Some critics feel the OCDSB has lost its focus, that we should concentrate solely on math and language literacy, the “basics” of education. If all were well in the world, if it were that simple, our jobs would be easy. We cannot and must not forget that for students and their families to thrive, they must be supported, their physical health must be safeguarded, their psychosocial safety must be ensured – their ability to access school and to thrive is paramount.

So, one month into school, all is not well. As a physician and trustee, I will continue to do the work I undertook for you. The community, however, has homework of its own: Advocate for our province to support public, not private healthcare. Advocate for access to primary care. Advocate for publicly funded mental health services. Advocate for our province to increase funding and commitment to public school boards. Continue to stand up as allies to 2SLGBTQIA students, families and educators.

As always, we are in this together.

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