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Students get off the school bus at Vernon River Consolidated School in Vernon Bridge, PEI, on Sept. 8, 2020.

JOHN MORRIS/Reuters

Prince Edward Island has adjusted its curriculum to address the academic gaps students face as they return to school this week – the only province to take such measures to help stem the learning loss that happened when in-classroom instruction ended abruptly in the spring.

As schools reopen across the country, there’s uncertainty among parents and educators about what the academic year will look like, and how quickly students could return to remote learning if community transmission of the coronavirus increases.

In PEI, a province with about 20,000 students, the government moved some of the curriculum content from a student’s previous grade. It also prioritized certain education outcomes for children to learn in the fall in case students pivot to distance learning at some point later in the school year.

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“We learned about student engagement challenges in the spring ... We really understood that despite student circumstances, there was widespread concerns about gaps in their learning," said Tamara Hubley-Little, director of English education programs and services for the Department of Education and Lifelong Learning, who spearheaded the curriculum changes. “We needed to do something about that.”

Along with the mental health and social well-being of students, educators worry about the learning loss that occurred in the spring when schools across the country closed their doors to in-class instruction. Students still received virtual instruction during that period, however some researchers have predicted that the learning loss could be substantial, especially among those who were already struggling in school.

Quebec is providing $20-million for teachers and other specialists to help students who have fallen behind academically because of the pandemic. In Ontario, where students start returning to school this week, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said on Tuesday that he is relying on the expertise of educators “to get young people back on track when it comes to their learning.”

Charles Pascal, a professor with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said learning gaps are always present, and teachers use various catch-up techniques at the beginning of the year to help students. Those losses, he said, will be “naturally greater because of the pandemic issues.”

“My biggest concern is for students with diverse learning challenges. Special resources has always been a problem, and far more supports will be required,” Prof. Pascal said.

In PEI, curriculum leaders pulled together teams of teachers and other experts in April to look at key areas of the curriculum. The work was completed in mid-June. In Grade 1, for example, which has more of an academic structure, the government has moved up some of those play-based activities from kindergarten. Dr. Hubley-Little explained students entering Grade 1 missed the last three months of kindergarten where they would have learned some crucial developmental skills from tying shoelaces to independently going to the washroom.

Meanwhile, students in Grade 7 will learn the order of operations, which is typically done in Grade 6. Those in Grade 9 will study squares and square roots in algebra, which is learned in Grade 8.

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Dr. Hubley-Little said students won’t be relearning everything from the previous grade, but rather key aspects of the curriculum that they might have missed in the spring. For some students, it would be reinforcing what they’ve learned, while for others, it may be the first time they’ve been exposed to those areas of the curriculum because of the spring gap.

“In a previous year, we would be looking at scaffolding the learning based on the current grade level material,” Dr. Hubley-Little said. “With so many of our students we couldn’t guarantee that they would have been exposed to the learning and so we are being very intentional to make sure that any of those gaps are addressed.”

The curriculum changes also compact the focus on priorities for the fall. In Grade 1 language arts, for example, the curriculum highlights three genres – narrative, non-fiction and persuasive writing – as opposed to six in the previous year that students can focus on and learn more deeply.

Aldene Smallman, president of the PEI Teachers' Federation, said some families and students were better able to adapt to learning at home. She declined to answer questions related to the changes in the curriculum.

“Teachers will take their time early in the school year to assess where their students are, as they always do,” she said. “The curriculum changes have been made to focus on the key areas of learning to make sure there are as few gaps as possible.”

PEI has nine active cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday.

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