Many students graduating high school this year haven’t taken an in-person exam since Grade 10.
And that’s just one of the new challenges the graduating class faces as its students prepare to enter post-secondary life after most of their high school education was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the class of 2022, restrictions to prevent spread of COVID-19 included cancelled labs, co-op placements, extracurricular clubs and sports. And “compassionate grading” policies meant many students received more lenient than normal assessments on assignments and tests.
Outside of school, the pandemic even managed to derail the social lives of teenagers, and some senior high school students say after periods of forced isolation, they now find it difficult to make friends and interact with peers.
Behind in learning, social interactions
“I really don’t know how prepared I feel for that journey after high school,” said Evan Woo, a Grade 12 student at Earl Haig Secondary School in Toronto.
“I feel behind in my school learning [and] my social interactions,” he said. “Having that robbed from us, it really sucks for sure.”
Like other Ontario students, Woo has endured at least three extended school closures due to COVID-19 since 2020. The remote learning offered during that time was no substitute for in-person class, he said.
“Our structure right now [is] just textbook learning and looking at PowerPoint slides,” said Woo, who is also a Toronto District School Board student trustee. “It’s really lost that attention and passion and drive for learning, and I really hope we can bring that back.”
Woo said his “real-life skills” also feel rusty and that he’s not sure he’s prepared for something as casual as “hanging out with friends” at university.
From bedrooms to lecture halls
Many university alumni can still recall the first time they walked into a massive lecture hall with hundreds of seats. The high school graduating Class of 2022 will do it after getting used to going to class alone in their bedroom.
“To just fathom sitting in a lecture hall with 500 students — I see that as a big challenge,” Woo said.
Educators have said they worry that the upheaval in schools has left students under prepared for the demands of college and university.
A major factor is adjustments being made for grading and exams. With in-person tests impossible, teachers shifted to smaller assessments or open book exams, which don’t require the same level of studying or knowledge retention.
“I think there are a lot of gaps in learning. A lot of it has to do with exam writing,” said Michelle Pagniello, a child-and-youth worker with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation.
“A lot of students heading to university don’t have the experience of completing major projects, because in the past few years they’ve been made optional, to kind of alleviate some of the workload and the stress that the pandemic has brought on, ” Pagniello said.
She also noted there have been fewer co-op placements for students in applied-level programs, which are geared toward college and careers in skilled trades. That means many students have missed out on opportunities for hands-on training in their final years of high school.
“Kids are struggling,” Pagniello said.
Along with adapted exams and projects, school boards have also allowed educators mark more leniently than usual, using so-called compassionate-grading accommodations.
At the Toronto District School Board, secondary school grades were frozen prior to winter break, at which point the Omicron case surge triggered another shift to remote learning. The decision means a student’s grade for that term could not drop below where it stood last December.
There have been calls to freeze grades at boards across the province.
University students ‘aren’t squeaking by anymore’
At post-secondary institutions, there are already signs the pandemic learning is leaving a mark on young minds, one professor said.
“Those same kinds of students who squeaked by, aren’t squeaking by anymore,” said James Andrew Smith, an engineering professor at York University who teaches more than 500 first-year students a year. “They drop out in greater numbers. Students that struggle have worse outcomes.”
Like many professors, he’s adapting. Instead of a comprehensive midterm or final exams, Smith is breaking up the material into assignments due throughout the term.
He believes it’s an improvement in some respects, a positive shift from the “high stakes, high stress” final exam. But as in-person class resumes, Smith won’t be ditching big tests.
“Exams are still valid,” he said. “It’s really important that we have a way to verify that the students are who they are, and that they know the material and have retained it.”
In-person classes ‘refreshing’
Attending school in person has been “quite refreshing,” for first-year York University student Hassan Dannyal.
He said he lacked “social interactions” during his final years of high school and struggled to get himself motivated for remote learning.
Although they’ll have endured a more disruptive high school than his cohort, Dannyal believes that incoming students will be able to make the transition.
He said professors have been understanding and so far his biggest challenge has been finding the energy to get to and from in-person classes.
“I do kind of get exhausted at the end of the day,” Dannyal said.