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Are the kids alright?


BY SHELLEY CARROLL

For most of my regular readers of this e-blast, when I ask "How are the kids doing?" I could be talking about your kids or your grandkids. They could be anywhere from ages zero to in their twenties. And right now, knowing how they're coping and which supports they need to ride out 2020 is kind of my job. The task force Mayor Tory has set up a major task force to lead Toronto's re-entry to more "normal" times and to support our City's economic recovery. This task force is divided into eight areas of focus, with a Councillor leading each area. I have been trusted with the Children and Youth file, which means I’m examining the challenges of our children and youth sector and making plans to ensure kids don't get left behind.

I'm joined in this work by terrific City staff from Children's Services and Social Development. We have conducted multiple virtual roundtable discussions with a variety of stakeholders in the world of services for Toronto's children and young people. These stakeholders include daycare coalitions, recreation program operators, youth workers, youth employment agencies, school board Trustees and staff, youth activists and more. We asked all of these organizations how they are coping, what they need to re-open successfully and what they've been hearing from the families and kids they work with. Mayor Tory asked me to develop five recommendations that tackle the most important things we need to act on first. The problem we faced was that we landed on far more than five recommendations at the end of every single one of our roundtable sessions. Why this is important Helping children transition back to childcare and school is one of the key areas where Toronto is going to need extra help from other orders of government. Our needs in Toronto are unique to the rest of the province, and it's not just a matter of size and scope.

The fact that hundreds of our elementary schools are also home to childcare centres is a unique model for serving children that developed in Toronto. The cost of commercial space has always been so prohibitive here that, many decades ago, the City started running childcare centres in schools with low enrolment. This helped many independent not-for-profit daycares (who wouldn't normally have the funds to rent a commercial space) operate out of a school. However, COVID-19 has put these two different users in shared facilities in direct competition. How's that? Well, in order for school-aged children to be safe in September, schools need to modify their space to spread their students out. Childcare centres will need to do the same with their little clients. With everyone looking for space inside the same school, something will have to give. This is the biggest dilemma with our efforts to re-open safely in Toronto. The province's confirmation that school will not resume until September buys us some time to figure this all out — but not much. It's unlikely a vaccine will be available by Labour Day, so Toronto needs to plan now for how childcare is going to work.

Once the space solution is designed, the work will need to be done in time for opening. For small children, other government assistance will be necessary as parents are already paying the highest fees in Canada. The challenge is that we will only know the price tag for this when the provincial Medical Officer of Health indicates what the conditions will be for safe operations when caring for children. So far, we've had no indication on when we'll get those details. What about youth? What youth need most right now is patience and understanding. This should come as no surprise — most of us know at least one youth who is driving their parents mad in lockdown. My husband, Sandy, and I fret about how our teenaged grandchildren are up all night in their rooms Snapchatting and playing PS4 with their friends. We had taken to calling them "The Bats" until I heard Matt Galloway on CBC refer to his kids as "keeping the same hours as raccoons."

For many, adolescence is the most magical, social time of our lives. For others, adolescent life is challenging and the activities that take them out of the house, such as school, sports or arts programs are their salvation. Either way, they are all dealing with loss without your adult ability to keep things in perspective. The task force must dedicate resources to helping Toronto’s youth stay healthy and safe. We've heard that some staff in youth services are struggling to find their clients other housing options because the homes they live in have become threatening during lockdown. For older youth, there must be a huge focus on helping them find gainful employment in the difficult economy we're facing. What are the prospects for post-secondary education if parents have lost their jobs and youth can't find summer employment to pay for school? Can we get them into alternative training such as growth and construction-related careers? Can we get Toronto’s economy hopping enough so youth and adults with dependents don't have to compete for the same jobs?

Our recommendations I'm sharing our findings on Children and Youth services here. This report will be presented to the Mayor and City Council next week along with the seven other areas of focus. Councillors will likely add the concerns they have heard over the last 10 weeks to the mix before Saad Rafi, the Chair of Toronto’s Recovery and Rebuild Strategy, begins his work. I will continue to focus on this work as much as possible. In the course of leading our virtual roundtable discussions, I learned so much more than I ever knew about agencies who serve the needs of young people. I've taken these agencies for granted because I thought they'd always be there — but now, they need help. If we get these agencies successfully running again, the kids will be alright.

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