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Grade 3-4 teacher Lynne Currie helps a student during summer school at Wilfrid Jury Public School in London, Ont., on July 20.Geoff Robins/The Globe and Mail

In a classroom in London, Ont., eight-year-old Omar Abdelaal concentrates as he writes sentences to describe sharks. “Shrake can swim,” he jots down on a sheet of paper, adding that they can bite, wiggle their tails and “see vree good.”

Omar’s spelling may not be perfect, but he is building confidence in his reading and writing skills at this summer school that runs for three weeks. Omar says he enjoys being in the classroom even though school is technically out until the fall “because I want to learn my language.”

Summer school is not just for high-school students wanting to boost marks or add to their credits. For Omar, who completed Grade 1, and other young learners, it’s also a way to help close some of the learning gaps that children have faced over the past two years of disrupted schooling.

The impact of the disruptions in Canada is unclear, because, unlike other countries, there is a scarcity of data that show how students have fared. A University of Alberta study found that students in Grades 1 and 2 in the Edmonton area performed, on average, eight months to a full year below grade level on reading tasks by the end of the 2020-21 academic year. Similarly, Grade 6 test results this academic year from Nova Scotia showed fewer students met expectations in reading, writing and math compared with prepandemic assessments.

Educators, parents and researchers have expressed concern about the achievement gaps in learning, as well as the social and emotional struggles of students, especially those from marginalized communities.

At Wilfrid Jury Public School in London earlier this week, the Grade 1 class spent the morning with their two teachers reading short stories, learning how to write a sentence and then moving to a math lesson of building structures with Lego and Magna-Tiles and counting the pieces by 10s. Across the hallway, a class of Grades 2 and 3 students was doing similar literacy and numeracy lessons.

The summer learning programs, funded by the Ministry of Education, are run across Ontario for elementary-age students. In London, the children are in class through the morning over three weeks.

Marion Moynihan, superintendent of student achievement at the Thames Valley District School Board, said classroom teachers connected with families whose children were working at a Level 2 or lower in their studies, and informed them about the program. A Level 3 is considered the provincial standard, which is equivalent to a B grade.

“It’s to maintain the literacy and numeracy learning and to help prevent a summer slip, really,” Ms. Moynihan said. Some education experts say that a yawning nine-week summer break negatively affects students’ achievement, causing what has been referred to as a summer slide.

Erica Payne, one of the Grade 1 teachers, said that when students first walked into the classroom a week earlier, they were hesitant to practise writing. They were either unsure about the letters of the alphabet or simply told her they couldn’t write.

She was patient with them and guided them on the sounds that come from combining letters. With two teachers in the room, they can work one-on-one with some of the children who struggle more than others or sit down with a handful for a reading session.

“Programs like this help them feel confident, like they can do it, and we’re celebrating with them,” Ms. Payne said. At one point, during the math lesson, she turned to a little boy and said, “Look at your 2s. They’re all facing the right way.” He smiled brightly, and then asked to head to the carpet to play with the dinosaurs.

Ms. Payne has taught for about a decade and can see more learning gaps in children that have been caused by the pandemic-related disruptions. The students in the Grade 1 summer program, for example, have only known schooling in a pandemic.

“It is very short,” she said about the summer program, “but it can make an impact in the confidence of a child, and I think that will get them prepared for September.”

Christine McNair has already started to see some of that courage build with her son, Liam, who is in the Grade 1 class. Ms. McNair was told by her son’s teacher that he was behind in his reading. She recommended the summer program.

Ms. McNair is an elementary school teacher but teaches higher grades. She reads to Liam, but he is reluctant to read to her. “I think he’s getting to the age where he’s starting to realize he’s a little behind, but he’s feeling very positive about summer school, which makes me feel positive about it,” she said.

Already, she has seen small gains. It isn’t as much of a struggle to have Liam read, although she admits that he is not enthusiastic about it.

“I was hesitant [to put him in summer school] in that he wouldn’t have that break, when his older brother is having that break. But I think it gives him the opportunity to not lose as much over the summer as he probably would,” she said.

Lynne Currie, the teacher in the Grades 2 and 3 class, echoes the sentiment. She said that some of the students in her class are just below the reading level for their grade. But a number of them are “really far behind,” she said, adding that some are at least two grade levels below.

The summer program is not supposed to “move them crazy levels” or teach these students everything they’ve lost, she said. “Hopefully, they catch on to one or two things.”

“I think it will give them that extra boost or maybe a little extra encouragement that they’re not anxious about going into the next grade, perhaps,” Ms. Currie said.

After all, she added, “extra time at school can’t hurt.”

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