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Schools scramble to make up for learning losses that have already occurred in the pandemic

You’ve likely heard of the summer slide: where students might start the school year having lost some numeracy and literacy skills after a two-month break in formal learning.

But families, educators and researchers alike are concerned that this year’s summer setback compounded by last spring’s pandemic school shutdowns could have lasting, detrimental effects on the achievement of Canadian students if not intentionally addressed this school year.

How schools will tackle this extended period of learning loss — with most kids having physically been out of class for five to six months — is a concern for many parents, says Toronto parent Anna-Kay Brown, co-chair of the Jane and Finch Education Action Group. 

Students already identified as having a learning gap might have been getting extra help or perhaps one-on-one tutoring at school prior to the pandemic, but the rapid pivot to remote learning earlier this year likely put an end to that, she said. 

That loss will have been exacerbated by the fact that many families — including those in her northwestern Toronto community, among the city’s worst hit by COVID-19 — weren’t able to participate in or to maintain remote learning for a variety of reasons.  

covid 19 anna kay brown school pickup
COVID-19 has revealed ‘a widening gap between the [haves and have-nots], in terms of who’s going to be able to afford to give their children an education,’ says Anna-Kay Brown, seen with her school-aged kids, Anthony and Arianna. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The pandemic has unveiled “a widening gap between the [haves and have-nots], in terms of who’s going to be able to afford to give their children an education,” said Brown, mother of two school-aged children and an infant.

“How can we lessen those learning gaps that we knew existed before COVID but may have now [been] heightened because of COVID?” 

WATCH | Sociology professor explains the “summer setback” and why COVID-19 has likely worsened the issue:

Sociology professor Janice Aurini explains how learning gaps can develop over summer breaks and why the pandemic has put the students most at risk in an even more vulnerable position. 1:49

‘A lot harder to catch up’

Catherine Haeck, an economics professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal, is also worried about how much learning loss has accumulated since late March. 

“You can expect the learning gap has increased dramatically during the pandemic,” said Haeck, who studies the human capital development of children and youth. Earlier this summer, she co-authored a paper about the pandemic’s potential impact on children’s academic success. 

Students who had family support and access to a variety of learning resources and opportunities over the past six months probably haven’t fallen too far behind, “but children who are in an environment where they don’t have access to technology … and have parents who have jobs that require them to be outside of the home, these children will have lost ground,” she said.

“For them, it will be a lot harder to catch up.”

catherine haeck
‘You can expect the learning gap has increased dramatically during the pandemic,’ says Catherine Haeck, professor of economics at the University of Quebec in Montreal. (CBC)

It’s vital that the gap be addressed because students’ school achievement can have a major impact on their lives, according to Haeck. Test scores correlate with the probability a student will graduate from high school, the probability of continuing onto post-secondary education and even into adulthood, including future employment and earning potential, she explained.

“The scores that we measure early on are extremely correlated with what happens later on in life,” Haeck said.

P.E.I. adjusts curriculum, identifies priorities 

How provincial and territorial education ministries are approaching the anticipated learning gap this fall differs, just as they’ve varied in their plans for schools reopening. 

Quebec, for instance, vowed to spend $20 million to hire teachers and other specialists to help students who have fallen behind because of the pandemic (with particular focus on  students with disabilities) while Nova Scotia has pledged to hire more support staffers later this fall after teachers assess the needs of students now back in class. Nunavut published a “Recovery Learning Framework” to encourage plans for tackling learning gaps after teachers flagged it as a concern in June. 

Meanwhile, Prince Edward Island has made the bold decision to revise its curriculum for this fall in response to the pandemic.

After surveying parents, teachers and students about remote learning in the spring, P.E.I.’s Department of Education heard loud and clear from Islanders with concerns about learning loss as a result of kids being out of school for so long. Coupled with the expectation that this school year could include new pandemic-caused shutdowns, officials chose to adjust the curriculum in an attempt to get ahead of it. 

“We did start this work in April … [and ask] ‘If we are not going to have a full year of learning, what guidelines would we provide for teachers to prioritize at the beginning of the school year?'” explained Tamara Hubley-Little, the P.E.I. Department of Education’s director of English education programs and services.

“Not only did we compact the curriculum in anticipation of interruptions, but in some cases, we took learnings from the previous year and pulled them into the next year, so that students’ learning gaps would be addressed.” 

tamara hubley little
Tamara Hubley-Little, director of English education programs and services for the PEI Department of Education, says the curriculum update helps provide some consistency for students and aids educators to focus their teaching. (Submitted by Tamara Hubley-Little)

That the department had defined areas of “foundational learning” — key parts of the curriculum, such as math and language arts, that students must know to have ongoing success — less than a decade ago helped immensely, Hubley-Little said.

Along with that curriculum adjustment and a renewed emphasis on checking in on students’ mental health and wellbeing, officials also worked with teachers on developing technological skills that will be needed if there is a return to remote learning. In turn, teachers are also getting students more comfortable with technology this fall, though Hubley-Little noted that P.E.I. won’t be putting as heavy an emphasis on synchronous online learning as other jurisdictions since the province can’t guarantee that all students would be able to access it. 

Having these kinds of updates embedded into the actual curriculum is an opportunity to provide some consistency for students and helps educators focus their teaching, she said. 

jerry mcaulay
Jumping into a new school year without addressing key learning that may have been missed during the last disrupted one would be discouraging and unfair to students, says Jerry McAulay, principal of Athena Consolidated School in Summerside, P.E.I. (CBC)

At the school level, teachers see the moves as realistic measures students need now, says Jerry McAuley, principal of Athena Consolidated School in Summerside, P.E.I. Take, for instance, the latest batch of Grade 1 students, who saw a significantly disrupted last few months of kindergarten, he said.

“If we jumped right in with [an unchanged] Grade 1 curriculum, I think it would be discouraging for them,” McAuley said. “It would be unfair for them. I think it would be unfair to ask the teachers to deliver that, without some of the [earlier] foundational elements that they really needed to be successful in Grade 1.”

The province’s small size has been an advantage in making these adjustments quickly, he said. 

“I taught in Manitoba, and I taught in Ontario … We’re blessed here in P.E.I. in that it’s easy for us to get together. It’s easy for the department [of education] to haul in a group of administrators or teachers and work collaboratively with them or to get their opinion.”

Schools ‘an equalizing influence’

Experienced teachers are well aware that every autumn, students return with very different summer experiences and that a portion will require support getting caught up, said Janice Aurini, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ont.

“Those kids who were already vulnerable — who already would have had summer learning losses and the challenge of having to catch up after summer vacation — are now entering school even further behind than they normally would have,” said Aurini, who conducted the first large-scale study on the summer setback phenomenon in Canada.

athena consolidated school
Athena Consolidated School students listen to their Grade 1 teacher, Lorelei MacArthur, read a story on Tuesday. (CBC)

An additional challenge this fall, she noted, will be that certain supports in a teacher’s toolkit for tackling learning loss — for example, after-school tutoring or homework clubs — might not be suspended alongside school arts clubs, sports teams and similar extracurricular activities because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“If parents have the financial ability, they can certainly access those things through Zoom or other kinds of technology … But for a lot of lower-income families, schools are really the hub that provide a lot of resources and are that equalizing influence,” she said. 

One bright light she sees, however, is the already-established summer programs designed to help kids catch up. In Ontario, for instance, these two- to three-week programs are funded by the province and offered by nearly every school board in the summer. Aurini wants to see these programs not only continue but be expanded over the next few years.

“We know that these programs work, that they help shore up all kinds of disparities,” she said.

Keeping schools open must be a priority, according to Aurini, but if a drastic rise in COVID-19 cases forces another shutdown, it will be imperative to pivot to substantial remote learning much quicker than last spring.

“Children cannot be without some kind of educational support and ongoing opportunities to learn for many more months,” she said.

“It’s non-school time where kids start to fall behind. When kids are in school, it’s pretty remarkable the ability of our teachers and our education system to really shore up those differences, not just in the learning but also providing kids with all kinds of other opportunities that they may not have otherwise had access to. We need our schools.”  

WATCH | What schools are doing to make up for the class time lost beacuse of pandemic:

Students often experience learning gaps after a summer break, but the extended time away from school because of the COVID-19 pandemic has made the issue worse and is further complicated by inequalities in what resources students have at home. 2:01

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