When students return to classrooms at the Toronto Catholic District School Board in about two weeks, they will experience what Kimberly Dixon describes as “just-in-time learning.”
This means the board will emphasize – more than it would in a normal year – that teachers bring students up to speed on concepts and foundational skills they may not have absorbed during months of remote learning. Only then will classes be able to move forward. Specialized teachers will guide children who need extra help.
“Our approach,” said Ms. Dixon, a superintendent of education at the TCDSB, “is to meet students where they are this fall.”
Canadian children have missed months of in-person education since the pandemic began last year. Now, a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections threatens to upend a third year of schooling.
In Ontario, students have been out of classrooms for 26 weeks. Even in places such as British Columbia, where in-person learning didn’t pause this past academic year, schooling was still frequently interrupted when students were forced to isolate at home because of positive cases in their classrooms.
The impact of these disruptions on learning is still unclear. Although there are students who have adapted to the changes, early evidence suggests the pandemic has left some behind in their studies by as much as a year.
Governments, educators and other experts are now grappling with how to close that achievement gap. If their efforts aren’t enough, education advocates fear that an entire generation of children could grow steadily more disengaged from learning.
One hurdle to closing the COVID-19 learning gap is that there is currently no way of measuring it accurately. Data on student achievement during the pandemic are scarce.
Kelly Gallagher-MacKay, a researcher and assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said there has been a “deafening silence,” at least in Ontario, when it comes to measuring learning gaps faced by many children, particularly those who are disadvantaged and who previously struggled in school.
“There’s a certain fatalism in it,” she said. “If we did know students weren’t doing well, what would we do, anyway?”
Several provinces temporarily stopped standardized tests this past school year. Ontario hasn’t run its tests for two years, and Alberta left it up to school districts to decide if students would participate.
The tests are controversial. Detractors argue that they don’t accurately gauge student achievement. But Prof. Gallagher-MacKay believes that even randomized testing would have given parents, educators and policy makers a window into how students have fared during the pandemic. Instead, the country is left with data that are limited to certain school boards, teacher surveys or estimates from researchers.
“We’re a little bit in the dark,” said Scott Davies, a professor at the University of Toronto and a Canada Research Chair in data, equity and policy in education.
“We don’t know exactly where we stand and there may not be the same motivation if you don’t have data points to say there’s a certain need to be addressed.”
According to a paper co-authored by Prof. Davies and Janice Aurini, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, abrupt school closings during the first wave of the pandemic appear to have set back typical students by as many as three and a half months. Lower-performing students may have been set back by as much as one full year.
The researchers estimated the shortfalls by extrapolating from previous research on “summer setback,” which measures literacy and math skills lost during summer vacation. They conclude that lockdowns during subsequent waves of COVID-19 infections likely led to further learning shortfalls, particularly among younger students who learned remotely.
Those findings mirror research done by George Georgiou at the University of Alberta. Prof. Georgiou, a professor in the department of educational psychology, said he happened on pandemic-education data almost accidentally. He had been guiding Edmonton-area school divisions on their reading assessments prior to the pandemic, and he continued doing so after the virus began to spread. The tests, which are done in the early grades, involve reading fluency and comprehension.
In the early years of schooling, children learn the fundamentals of how to read, which allows them to succeed throughout their education. But Prof. Georgiou found that the pandemic has left many behind. Students in Grades 1 and 2 performed, on average, eight months to a full year below grade level on reading tasks by the end of the past academic year. Students from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds had more severe reading difficulties, he found.
“The problem,” Prof. Georgiou said, “is that if these kids … keep going through grade levels without having their reading performance fixed, then they will be experiencing all sorts of other issues.”
Provinces are beginning to recognize that learning gaps exist. Ontario is setting aside $20-million for reading assessments in the early grades. And B.C. earmarked $18-million to support students whose learning was impacted, and is expected to release its standardized test results shortly.
Alberta will spend $45-million on literacy and numeracy supports, after its modelling showed that about 15 per cent of students in Grades 1 to 3 will require extra help – twice as many as in previous years. For the second year in a row, Prince Edward Island will revise parts of its curriculum to include content from previous grades.
In Quebec, Premier François Legault made it a priority to keep schools open. Jean-François Del Torchio, a spokesperson for the province’s Education Minister, said the data on how students fared this past year were “encouraging.” He said the government is funding tutoring programs to address any challenges students face in their learning.
The pandemic has led some parents to seek help outside of school. Under normal circumstances, a family would have to spend about two months waiting for an appointment to have a child assessed for learning disabilities, said Erica Baker, a clinical psychologist in Halifax. Heading into the second autumn of COVID-19, that wait time is now more than six months.
Worried parents are reaching out for help after watching their children struggle with virtual school or in modified learning environments over the past two school years, Dr. Baker said.
“These kids are struggling,” Dr. Baker said. “These kids absolutely are having learning difficulties. Is that going to become a learning disability? Hopefully not.”
In Nova Scotia, students spent most of last year in classrooms, but Dr. Baker said the province failed to address the learning gaps from the spring shutdown, especially among students who are most disadvantaged.
In the province’s back-to-school plan, which was released this week, the focus remained on health and safety measures. There was no mention of student achievement or academic supports. Spokesperson Jenna MacQueen said the province was “still working on compiling this data.”
“The major concern for me right now,” Dr. Baker said, “is we just don’t know what the situation is. And we’re going into it as if everything is just going to work itself out. I don’t think that’s the best way to approach it.”
In Ontario, it’s unclear whether the government’s $20-million allotment for reading assessments in the early grades will be enough to address children’s learning needs. Asked how the province arrived at that amount, Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said the ministry reviewed provincial data, looked at other jurisdictions and heard from educators and school board leaders. “Research suggests the need to focus on literacy and math,” she said.
Report card marks for young learners were slightly lower than in previous years, according to data from the ministry. And there was a significant increase in “I codes.” These are given to students in cases where teachers don’t have enough information to assign a grade. The ministry suggested this could mean there was an additional impact on student achievement that wasn’t captured by marks.
Prof. Georgiou has worked with ministry officials in Alberta on reading assessments and interventions for young learners. Asked if the $45-million the province has set aside for learning supports is enough, Prof. Georgiou said it would depend on students’ needs.
The lack of assessment data across the country has made it difficult to build momentum toward addressing learning gaps, Prof. Gallagher-Mackay said. Educators in Ontario have shared stories of students who sign into their online classrooms and disappear for the rest of the day, she added. She has been working with several school boards in Ontario to develop data that will help measure the impact of the pandemic on learning.
Small efforts to address learning losses are under way. In Winnipeg, the Pembina Trails School Division has added six instructional coaches – two in literacy and four in numeracy – who will focus their efforts on elementary schools where students showed the biggest gaps in achievement on their June report cards. The division found that students in some schools, particularly those with higher newcomer and Indigenous populations, had greater gaps in their learning year over year than other students. Ted Fransen, the division’s superintendent of education, said this year is all about “rebound learning.”
“Our students, staff and families learned a great deal these past 18 months that will not be reflected in the report cards. Nevertheless, our job as educators is to support them as they rebound in the areas of curriculum,” he said.
In Ottawa, about 240 elementary students at the Catholic school board took part in reading-recovery programs this summer. Thomas D’Amico, the board’s director of education, said these students were identified by their teachers as being behind.
The program was voluntary and ran for four weeks. Guided virtually by instructors, students would assemble in groups for an hour a day and build on their core literacy skills. Meanwhile, high-school students, particularly those from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds, participated in a summer school catch-up.
Mr. D’Amico is wary of overestimating learning gaps. Many students learned new skills over the past year and a half, from digital literacy to perseverance, he said. “The learning loss is important for that targeted group of students that were completely disengaged or stopped attending. But for those that did participate, they have skills that they would never otherwise have had if it wasn’t for the pandemic. They will move along as long as we address their mental health and well-being. Then they’ll be in a position to continue to learn.”
Yona Nestel kept her four-year-old out of kindergarten in Toronto this past year, because she did not want her daughter’s first experience in the classroom to be unsettled. Now she has questions about how educators will guide children who did not participate in their schooling last year, or who were completely disengaged.
She is far from the only parent in this situation. Ontario school boards informed the provincial government last fall about a significant and unexpected enrolment decline of about 40,000 students.
School boards are expecting many of these children to return to public education this fall. Ms. Nestel said she will enroll her daughter in senior kindergarten.
During the past year, she and her husband set aside half an hour a day to work with their daughter on her letters and numbers. But the sessions became less productive as the young learner grew frustrated and resistant. Staring down at another year of disruptions, Ms. Nestel worries that her daughter won’t catch up. She also worries about her seven-year-old son, whose report card marks were not as strong as they were in previous years.
“There’s a cohort of children that have had two years of disrupted learning and we’re going tickety-boo as if nothing’s happened,” she said. “The curriculum is supposed to be delivered as if no disruptions happened. Evaluations are going ahead as if we’re in normal times. That makes me quite upset. It’s not responding to the learning needs of kids that have been impacted by this.”
In Calgary, Medeana Moussa said that the issue of learning loss has been raised among parents at her school council meetings.
Ms. Moussa is a parent and the executive director of Save Our Students, an education advocacy group in Alberta. Already, she has seen a few parents offer teachers and principals resources to shore up pandemic-related learning losses. That’s not a solution, because it raises issues of equity and threatens to deepen the divide between have and have-not schools, she said.
“If they don’t meaningfully invest in education and mental health now, we will see long lasting and enduring impacts from the disruption to learning of all students,” Ms. Moussa said.
The Decibel: Learning loss and COVID-19
In May, as provinces were still grappling with their long-term plans to reopen schools, Caroline Alphonso spoke with Decibel host Tamara Khandaker about the barriers pupils faced in remote learning. Subscribe for more episodes.
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