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An alarming spike in COVID-19 cases sent members of the Canadian military to Garden Hill First Nation, a remote fly-in community in northeast Manitoba, in the middle of the school year. Students worked from home, but poor internet quality raised significant challenges, and there was only so much schoolwork that teachers could deliver by hand.

Catherine Monias agonized for weeks about how to keep children from falling further behind. She is the education director in her community, which is about 475 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. She has also been guiding her three school-age grandchildren through their own class work.

Last month, she made the difficult decision to keep students in their existing grades when they return in the fall to what she hopes will be a normal school year.

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“That is the best possible decision we could come up with, unless you want students in the next grade who can’t even do the work,” Ms. Monias said.

Educators across the country struggle with how to mitigate the learning gaps children face from a disrupted academic year. Schools closed abruptly last spring during the first wave, and children in many parts of the country have been going back and forth between in-person and remote learning. Ontario announced last week that its two million students, who have been learning online since April because of a rise in COVID-19 infections, would continue to learn remotely for the last four weeks of the academic year.

Ms. Monias said the 1,200 students in Garden Hill haven’t been in their classrooms since the shutdown in March of last year because the buildings were used as isolation centres.

This fall, there will be eight Grade 1 classrooms because Manitoba doesn’t allow students to repeat kindergarten. The remaining students will continue in their current grades, Ms. Monias said, adding that parents support the decision.

“We are not failing anyone. They are continuing where they left off,” she said.

Nadine Bartlett, an assistant professor in inclusive education at University of Manitoba, said she respects the decision of Garden Hill educators to have their students continue learning in their current year. “The decision they’re making is driven by the best interest of the children in their community,” she said.

Dr. Bartlett said Garden Hill has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. The community has been in lockdown. Members of the Canadian Armed Forces arrived in January to help contain the spread of the virus. And the ability of educators to teach remotely was limited, because even if children had technology, the internet bandwidth was too weak.

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The “unique circumstances” at Garden Hill mean that having students continue in their current grade was a good move, but the same response can’t necessarily be applied to other parts of the country, she said. Instead, educators and governments will need to find ways to address learning gaps when students move to the next grade in the fall, she said.

“There’s going to be the need for remediation and getting caught up on lost time,” she said.

Early evidence suggests that students, particularly the youngest learners, are behind. A University of Alberta researcher found that Grade 1 and 2 students in the Edmonton area were, on average, a year behind when they took a reading test in January. Further, an early analysis from the Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest school board, found fewer Grade 1 students were meeting reading expectations this academic year.

Prachi Srivastava, an associate professor of education and global development at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., has been advocating for governments to focus their attention on how to help students in September.

“We cannot pretend the last year, year-and-a-half, did not happen and that the student who is going into Grade 3 … can go into Grade 3 when they really haven’t had a proper continuous education since Grade 1,” she said.

Dr. Srivastava said the situation in Garden Hill is unique because students haven’t been able to receive emergency remote learning, not because of a lack of will on the part of educators and the community, but owing to a lack of infrastructure to support them. Elsewhere, governments need to restructure curriculum to boost the core numeracy and literacy skills of students when they return in the fall, she said. Dr. Srivastava said she hasn’t seen much of an effort to make that happen.

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“This is not the story of one or two children. This is the story of … entire cohorts that have not had proper education access for an extended period,” she said.

Ms. Monias said the school year will begin with students reviewing material and concepts. She acknowledged that some may be ahead, but she said that many will need help.

“Education is not just moving along, passing, passing. You’re supposed to receive a quality education that will make you competent,” she said. By allowing students in her community to continue in their current grade, “it will give them the skills that they need to move on to the next level,” she added.

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