In Natalie Little’s English classroom, high-school students are no longer reading a Shakespearean play, writing an essay or preparing for a final exam.
There just isn’t enough time.
“We’ve had to rethink how we do everything,” said Ms. Little, the English department head at Brooklin High School in Whitby, Ont. “We’re just really trying to nail down those skills so that they can be prepared for next year. We’re less concerned with content and more concerned with skill.”
High-school teachers in many parts of the country are readjusting curriculum as they settle into an academic year that involves less face-to-face time with their students and, in many cases, getting through course material over a fewer number of weeks. The experiences of students have also changed, from learning at a faster pace to missing out on science experiments and assignments that would typically be done in previous years. Parents, education experts and even teachers worry about what this could mean for how many credits teens earn, their engagement in school and graduation rates.
Karen Mundy, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said she is concerned that “kids will lose motivation and engagement with school, irreparably harming their futures.”
She said that based on international estimates of learning loss during the pandemic, roughly one in four high-school students could use supplementary tutoring. “We already see many kids disenfranchised in our public-education system. I fear with online learning and the socioeconomic stress of COVID, we will see more,” said Prof. Mundy, who also has a son in high school.
Several school districts, including Ms. Little’s, have split the year into four quadmesters where students take two classes at a time or octomesters where they take one course at a time, as opposed to a four-course semestered system. In many cases, students spend a fraction of their time in the classroom to allow for physical distancing, with cohorts switching between the bricks-and-mortar school and online learning. Students and teachers say the classroom can be a sterile environment, unlike previous years where they collaborated on assignments. At home, students have been known to keep their computer cameras off for their virtual lessons.
Ms. Little said her department condensed the workload to focus on smaller assignments and build writing skills. Instead of essay-writing, which would have taken about three weeks to teach, students learn to develop a thesis, build arguments and provide supporting evidence. Her board, along with several others in Ontario, have scrapped final exams.
Although many students will adjust to a different high-school experience, Ms. Little worries about those who previously struggled and what it could mean for their credit accumulation, especially when they’re not required to be at school every day.
“Our philosophy has been grace before grades,” she said. “We’re just trying to take care of students' mental health and getting them used to this new environment.”
Edmonton student Reese Lilge said classes online “almost feel optional, when it shouldn’t be.”
She and her classmates are not required to turn on their cameras, which makes her feel less connected to school. Ms. Lilge, a Grade 12 student, is taking a math course this quadmester that she described as so fast-paced that it is difficult to keep up or even retain the information. “The two lessons a day is a lot to take in, and then we have way more homework at the end of the day when class is over. I just feel like it’s a lot of work,” she said. “This has all been a big jump.”
Kareem Shakeel, a Grade 10 student in Newmarket, Ont., said he feels like aspects of the curriculum are being condensed and he’s not learning as much as he did last year. “At the moment, I don’t think I feel prepared” for Grade 11 because it is more difficult to engage with teachers and classmates online than face to face in the classroom.
He spends a fraction of time in school and does most of its courses online. Mr. Shakeel has a science course this term. “It is nearly impossible to do an experiment or learn different concepts through a computer screen. I know teachers are trying to adapt, but it’s really difficult to learn,” he said.
Annie Kidder, executive director of the advocacy group People for Education, said while the effects on high-school students may not be known for years, she hopes teachers are being given time to evaluate, collaborate and reflect on whether they are meeting student needs.
“It will be a tragedy in a way if we get to the end of a whole year and only discover then that various strategies haven’t been working at all,” Ms. Kidder said.
“When you’re there in person, you can see a kid in the hall and go, ‘Hey, so-and-so, you weren’t in class today. What’s going on? How can I help you?’” she added. “It’s harder to fall through the cracks if you’re walking down the hall. But online, it’s easier to be invisible.”
In a recent survey by the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, a majority of high-school students said they were feeling anxious, while some parents told the board their children were not receiving enough in-person learning.
"The COVID-19 secondary school timetable does not encourage proper knowledge retention,” one student wrote. Another wrote: “My final year of high school seems like a mess right now and all the talk in my grade at school is about if we can even get into uni after all this.”
Meg Walker, a senior high-school student in Edmonton, is considering taking a year off after she graduates. She attends an arts school, and goes in most mornings for an advanced directing course. She said she withdrew from her English class after feeling unsafe in a room of almost 30 other students.
She said it has been difficult to focus on schoolwork during this time. Her mother, Trish Walker, said her daughter’s final year of high school has shifted dramatically.
“There’s some things she’s not doing that would have increased her chances of getting into particular programs,” Ms. Walker said. “It’s vastly changed the landscape of her immediate future.”
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