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Kelly Gallagher-Mackay is a researcher and author of Pushing the Limits: How Schools Can Prepare Our Children Today for the Challenges of Tomorrow

First came the crisis. Most parents and educators supported the extreme measures of closing schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and as fall has come around, most have undertaken extraordinary measures to ensure kids get at least some schooling. The operating theory appears to be a mix of “something is better than nothing,” “safety first” and “be kind.”

In Ontario, the “something is better than nothing” and “safety first” philosophies have seen boards doing backflips to provide online schooling to growing numbers of families. The “be kind” philosophy has resulted in a renewed emphasis on social-emotional support and waiving exams, to limit pressure on stressed-out children and educators.

But the current approach to managing the impact of school closures and disrupted instruction has overshadowed another problem: significant learning losses for children. As COVID-19 numbers trend upwards, we need a plan to address the implications of learning loss over the long haul.

Early international evidence suggests learning loss related to the pandemic is a very big problem. A study from Belgium showed kids in Grade 6 with test score declines that would equate to approximately half a year’s learning, relative to the year before, when they took standardized tests after schools reopened in June.

Without intervention, lost learning is likely to have long-term – and compounding – effects on students' trajectories into adulthood. Likely outcomes are not just lower test scores, but more dropouts, students opting out of post-secondary, or arriving there less prepared, and entering a brutal labour market with a weaker foundation for lifelong learning.

A September report by well-known Stanford economists estimates that globally, students in K-12 during last year’s school closings should expect 3 per cent lower income over their lifetimes relative to students whose learning has not been interrupted. Further, since there is a strong relationship between skills and prosperity, they estimate that national productivity will likely be reduced by 1.5 per cent annually for the rest of the century.

Students who were already struggling with school – disproportionately, low-income, Indigenous, disabled and some groups of racialized students – are likely to see greater losses with fewer supports available. A group of Quebec economists estimate that socio-economic inequality in school test scores could increase by 30 per cent. Doing nothing is likely to deepen disadvantage, further derailing work toward a just recovery.

To date, in spite of immense efforts to get kids back into any kind of class, Canada does not appear to have a forward-looking plan to ensure social and educational catch-up for children facing educational disruption.

The first, most critical measure is to ensure all children have access to schooling that is both safe and effective. Currently, provincial governments in Canada – even with belated federal assistance – have opted for school re-opening on the cheap. In particular, rather than providing a guarantee of learning conditions that best mitigate COVID-19 risk, including smaller classes, Ontario and Alberta have offered parents the option of switching their children to full-time online schooling.

The “solution” of full-time virtual school – especially in elementary school – has all the evidence base of treating a viral infection by drinking bleach. The evidence we do have on online learning suggests that disadvantaged students are less likely to do well.

Submitting to diagnostic testing is an unpleasant part of any ailment, but as we look ahead to grim winter, we should know how bad things are. Governments should be evaluating the progress of representative groups of students of different ages, using measures that allow benchmarking. Parents, and the system, need evidence of whether and how far behind kids are falling, and, in particular, how online schooling compares to bricks-and-mortar in terms of students' learning and well-being.

Tools exist to help address the problem. Options include summer school, social-emotional learning programs, goal-focused mentorship for teens, and dedicated community liaison staff to address contextual hardships that affect students' ability to learn.

One of the most promising approaches is tutoring through schools, outside of class time. Intensive one-on-one and small group tutoring by trained staff tied to the curriculum is a very effective way to achieve significant learning gains. Currently, tutoring supports tend to go only to already privileged students, because of cost. However, we can look to the U.K., where the government committed £1-billion for tutors to help students with the greatest needs.

We are past time to reckon with the impact of the pandemic on students' learning. We need political will and a plan to make sure that harms suffered in the crisis are counted – and addressed.

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