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Young students attend class at Thorncliffe Park Elementary School in Toronto before the COVID-19 pandemic.DEBORAH BAIC/The Globe and Mail

An early analysis from Canada’s largest school board shows fewer Grade 1 students are meeting reading expectations so far this academic year, heightening concern about the learning gaps the pandemic is leaving behind.

The report from the Toronto District School Board found that the proportion of students meeting grade-level reading expectations was three percentage points lower in October, compared to the same time in 2018.

The school board also analyzed reading levels in January for children who had opted to study remotely. It found that the proportion of students meeting expectations was nine percentage points lower compared to the same period two years prior.

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“Put more directly, early-years literacy has suffered for many students during the pandemic due to the periodic or continual absence of in-person classroom opportunities for students to learn how to read,” the report stated.

“Given the importance that literacy capacity has on future academic success throughout elementary and secondary schooling, these data are concerning,” the report added. The data will be shared with trustees at a meeting next week.

Many educators and parents across the country have been worried about gaps in learning during the pandemic, especially last spring when many families struggled with the sudden move to online learning. A University of Alberta researcher 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.

In the early years of schooling, children learn the fundamentals of how to read. An important milestone happens around Grade 3, when many students are able to read on their own for learning and pleasure.

David Cameron, the TDSB’s senior manager of research and development, said the preliminary results would help to focus interventions for students. The reading assessments measured fluency, comprehension and the ability to decode words in a quarter of TDSB schools.

“We’re really worried about early literacy,” Mr. Cameron said in an interview on Friday. “The challenge for us is to figure out where we put our oar in in September to get the … best benefit for our kids.”

Jennifer Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto union local, said that it is a challenge for educators to teach children virtually, especially younger students. Ms. Brown said that it is unclear how the shift to virtual learning will affect schooling postpandemic.

“I do know that if there were any deficiencies in any subject area, there would be the opportunity to bring those students together and work with them to build up their skill level, as we do all the time,” Ms. Brown said.

The TDSB report showed that although fewer students were meeting grade expectations in reading assessments, report-card marks in reading climbed slightly. The board said that the discrepancy would be analyzed.

Further, data from the TDSB showed that high-school marks have gone up, on average, by four percentage points so far this academic year compared with the 2018-19 year. In particular, the number of students who earned marks in the 80 to 100 per cent range had increased “significantly” in the first half of the school year, the board’s data showed.

“There is evidence here that report card marks may be reflecting a different set of learning impacts than they did before in-person learning was disrupted,” the report noted. There are no final exams this year and students have different assignments to demonstrate their understanding of course content. “These differences may have influenced the shifts in marks and grade percentages that have occurred since the pandemic began,” the report stated.

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