Near the end of January, with schools across most of Ontario shuttered to students, a principal in Toronto sent a nine-paragraph e-mail out to families. In the seventh paragraph, scattered among his reminders of the challenges students face in 2021, he included an eye-catching warning.
Bill Koskinas, the principal of Morse Street Junior Public School in the city’s east end, wrote that while learning environments had changed, the province’s achievement expectations had not.
His warning: Brace for bad report cards.
“If marks appear to be lower than what you were expecting,” Mr. Koskinas wrote, “it may not be due to a lack of effort, but more likely due to loss of valuable in-class time and supports.”
The Toronto District School Board is compiling data mined from the elementary-school report cards it sent out last week, and Mr. Koskinas wrote that results from his school suggested the presence of “significant learning gaps” in the pandemic-impacted education it was providing.
Early indicators emerging across Canada show many students are behind in their learning, with some having fallen behind as much as a full year. Education advocates worry that without swift action, those losses will persist long after COVID-19 wanes, which could lead to a generation of children who grow more disengaged with school – and a country with higher high-school dropout rates.
The pandemic has affected learning differently in every province, and even among students, some of whom are more adaptable to changes. Schools in Atlantic Canada and British Columbia have remained open for the most part since the fall, while students in Ontario and Alberta have bounced between in-person and remote learning. Yet, there is no large-scale testing to measure how students have fared during this period of disruption – especially those who struggle, experts say – and only Prince Edward Island adjusted its curriculum in the fall to address learning gaps.
Jerome Cranston, dean of the faculty of education at the University of Regina, has advocated for provincial governments to consider the long-term impacts of this disrupted learning, and think about making changes to curriculum and to schooling.
“My biggest fear is, there’s going to have been this opportunity to prepare for the gap, to address it [and] realign expectations,” Prof. Cranston said. “I’m worried that the most vulnerable children and youth are going to be just expected come September to perform and be ready as if nothing happened.
“That’s probably the most concerning.”
Schools in Windsor, Ont., first closed their doors last March, as the first wave of the pandemic washed onto Canadian shores. In November, after a short return to the classroom, Aisha Bustani’s three children were ushered back home.
Families at Frank W. Begley Public School were told their children would learn remotely after one of the largest COVID-19 school outbreaks in the country – 40 students and nine staff tested positive – was unfolding in their midst. The province kept Windsor schools closed to in-person learning until last Monday.
Ms. Bustani and her family are Syrian refugees who live in an area of Windsor that is a landing pad for newcomers. The area faces a series of socio-economic challenges, including high rates of low-income families – a population disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Close to 40 per cent of Begley’s students are ESL (English as a second language) learners.
The school sent iPads to assist her children with virtual learning, which Ms. Bustani said they received just before the Christmas break. By January, the device used by her eldest son, who is in Grade 5, had to be returned because of technical issues.
“He’s not attending anything. He is not learning now,” Ms. Bustani said in late January. (She spoke to The Globe and Mail in Arabic through an interpreter with the local newcomers centre.)
The other two children, in kindergarten and Grade 3, had also stopped learning online. Neither Ms. Bustani nor her husband could help their son in kindergarten, because they didn’t understand how to use the technology to log into his virtual classroom.
Her eldest, she said, had become more anxious. “He says, ‘I don’t like what’s going on. I’m not enjoying my life. I’m doing nothing,’ ” she said. She is hopeful that a return to the classroom will engage them in their schoolwork.
In Vancouver, Nancy Small has seen her children’s marks suffer because they are spending less time in the classroom and therefore not receiving as much guidance from teachers as they would in a typical school year.
Her high-school daughter, typically an A-plus student, is having a difficult time keeping up with the pace of schoolwork in math. Her son, in Grade 8, has to figure out complex science topics on his own.
Her children grow less and less motivated. They feel isolated from their friends. In particular, she said, high-school students in her school district are receiving less in-class instruction a week than students in other nearby boards.
“It is not working,” Ms. Small said. “Our kids are being left behind.”
Rima Nohra, manager of a program at the New Canadians’ Centre of Excellence for Windsor-Essex that places settlement workers in schools to assist newcomer students and their families, said it took almost a month in the spring to teach families how to help their children with remote learning. She and her staff would use WhatsApp video calls to show families which buttons on the computer to press so that children, especially the youngest learners, could connect with their teachers remotely.
“They don’t know the language and they don’t know the technology,” she said, adding that some have several children at home. “How can they manage all of that?”
It’s not for a lack of effort. Schools such as Begley have delivered technology or paper packages of assignments to students’ homes. Teachers e-mail Ms. Nohra’s staff at midnight with new ideas to connect with families. “The struggle is not that there’s not enough resources. The struggle is [that] it is too much … to switch back and forth,” she said.
Her frustration built as she spoke. Students, especially the newcomers she and her staff manage, need stability. Right now, they don’t have any – setting their schooling back even further, she said.
“I think this year is just gone by. I feel like it’s a writeoff,” Ms. Nohra said. “Teachers are trying their best. School boards are trying their best. We are doing everything. But it’s too much on the newcomers – we hear it everywhere.”
In Quebec, the provincial association of school administrators has raised concerns about student marks. The number of failing grades among high-school students, in particular, are 15 per cent higher in math and 10 per cent higher in French than in previous years, said Nicolas Prévost, president of the association.
At the Pembina Trails School Division in Winnipeg, first-term report cards for the youngest learners showed an almost 2-per-cent drop in literacy – not insignificant given that children learn the fundamentals of how to read in those early years.
A University of Alberta researcher has 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.
George Georgiou, a professor in the department of educational psychology at the university, has been monitoring the standardized reading assessments for about 20 schools in Edmonton and the surrounding areas. The literacy impact of COVID-19 on the youngest, in Grades 1 and 2, has been substantial, he said. The assessments were done in the fall and then again in January, and involved sounding out words, reading fluency and comprehension.
By now, with intensive and uninterrupted learning, many children who struggled with reading would have become average readers. Instead, they are “becoming part of the group of children with learning disabilities that schools will have to service for years to come,” Prof. Georgiou said.
Teacher Jackie Clarke has found the number of children who require more intensive guided instruction in reading and writing has almost doubled since returning to their elementary school in Oakville, west of Toronto, in the fall. The gaps are more pronounced than the learning losses typically seen after the summer holidays, she said. “We’re working on them,” she added.
Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said a recent survey from the group asked teachers about the challenges they faced getting through the curriculum, especially as they move between remote and in-person learning.
Teachers are worried, he said. Families have connectivity issues at home with technology, and many students do not have the stability they need to learn as outbreaks shutter classrooms and send children online for days. “I also know [teachers] are working hard to make sure they’re filling in whatever those perceived gaps might be,” Mr. Schilling said.
Still, experts worry that unless there are focused strategies, children will suffer. Already in the U.S. and Europe, evidence is emerging of learning losses, or what is referred to as a COVID slide.
A recent paper showed that an eight-week lockdown in the Netherlands resulted in a learning loss of about three percentile points for primary-school students. The losses from suspending face-to-face instruction were up to 60 per cent larger among students from less-educated homes, the researchers found. Prachi Srivastava, an associate professor of education at the University of Western Ontario who has studied how countries fare in a state of emergency, said this confirms how the pandemic is impacting children from less-advantaged backgrounds.
Provincial data do not exist in Canada – standardized tests (paused in Ontario during the pandemic), while controversial, would provide a glimpse into the scope of the problem, she said.
“I am not a fan of high-stakes testing. I am also not a fan of big standardized tests. But I do think there is a case of doing it for diagnostic purposes,” Prof. Srivastava said. “It is going to help us to target interventions in schools that have been more affected given the makeup of particular populations.”
In Regina, Prof. Cranston works with Indigenous communities, where students arrive in Regina or Saskatoon to receive an education. Many have returned to their homes to be with their families during the pandemic, he said. Would postpandemic schooling take into account these disrupted months of learning?
He approached the Saskatchewan government with an idea to set up a group that studies the issue and finds ways to mitigate the losses as part of a wider recovery.
“At this point in time, it has not met with ministerial success.”
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The Ontario government recently said that a portion of federal funding for schools would be used on summer learning programs for kids who have fallen behind or need a refresher on key concepts. However, that option is voluntary for families.
Prof. Srivastava said governments need to start rethinking the school calendar and how curriculum is delivered over the next two years.
Absent a movement to test and mitigate gaps, school districts and educators are tackling the problem on their own.
Ted Fransen, head of Winnipeg’s Pembina Trails School Division, said teachers noticed in the spring that children in the middle grades were tuning out of school and their marks were suffering. He described it as a “wake-up” call.
When students and educators returned in the fall, staff made it a priority to have daily check-ins with students in this group. They’d reach out to make sure that not only assignments were completed, but that children were faring as well as could be during an unsettled time.
Just as one group settled, Mr. Fransen has had to turn his attention to another. In report cards issued last month, the division noticed that literacy scores had gone down slightly for students in Grades 1 to 3 – the critical years when students learn to read.
Those who struggle and don’t get the necessary help will suffer lifelong learning implications and are more likely to drop out of high school, research has shown.
“This is an opportunity for us to rally around a cause,” Mr. Fransen said. The district is introducing a levelled reading program, with the hope of turning those marks around by the spring.
Similarly, in Beaumont, Alta., a suburb outside Edmonton, principal Matthew Kierstead has made literacy a focus at his school, measuring students’ progress three times a year. École Coloniale Estates School, which has roughly 550 students, is located in an affluent neighbourhood.
Yet, despite the school’s socio-economic advantages, Dr. Kierstead noticed that when students returned in September, almost every single grade came back with reading scores “considerably lower than any other year. The loss of an opportunity to be with a teacher has affected them significantly,” he said.
Dr. Kierstead has focused on the foundations of literacy, training teachers who in turn then work with small groups of children. Struggling readers receive more focused instruction that changes immediately if it’s not working.
“If we’re missing a beat in those grades and kids are skipping by, it affects their job opportunities, their academic career opportunities,” he said.
The school’s latest tests in January showed some growth in reading, but challenges remain.
“We’re still not caught up to where we were,” Dr. Kierstead said.