Some young learners are struggling to build early reading skills while others stumble over math concepts. Repeated pandemic pivots have left students out of practice with classroom learning, impacted their mental health and distanced them from peers. The CBC News series Learning Curve explores the ramifications of COVID-19 for Canadian students and what they’ll need to recover from pandemic-disrupted schooling.
What school looks like under COVID-19 has differed depending on where you are in Canada, but all students have experienced at least some form of disruption to their learning since March 2020.
In just the first 14 months of the pandemic, for example, province-wide closures of in-person schooling ranged from nine weeks in British Columbia and Quebec to 19 weeks in Ontario — closures that later increased during the more recent Delta and Omicron waves of COVID-19.
With students from kindergarten to Grade 12 winding down a third school year impacted by COVID-19, CBC News asked Canada’s provincial and territorial governments about their plans to help students recover from pandemic education.
We also asked a trio of experts to review the information. They said the details shared don’t go far enough and flagged key areas — from assessment and curriculum reform to tutoring and other targeted support — that need more attention to help struggling learners catch up and also revitalize Canada’s education system.
A ‘sketch of a plan’
Global education researcher Prachi Srivastava found a few “unique and innovative” details within the information submitted, such as a commitment by the Northwest Territories to support students up to age 21 in its formal K-12 school system. However, she remained generally unimpressed with the “sketch of a plan” most regions shared.
“These plans should have been made two years ago,” said Srivastava, a specialist in global emergency education and associate professor of education and global policy at Western University in London, Ont.
“The literature on what to do in an emergency … that didn’t just emerge yesterday. It’s been around for 20-odd years.”
Though community-level details might vary due to different regional realities across Canada, she said every recovery plan should cover three core components:
Reforming curriculum to address learning that was affected during disruption periods.
Boosting core skills (literacy, numeracy and more).
Targeting resources and investments to the communities most affected.
Srivastava was looking for more detail, including from regions that touted high-dollar spending. Whether you’re a member of the public or an education expert, she noted, it’s difficult to contextualize those amounts without knowing more, such as per-pupil expenditure or which communities specifically will benefit.
For instance, if a government pledges $50 million for a particular educational initiative, “Is that money that’s actually supplementing the budget or is it coming from somewhere else?” Srivastava asked. A large sum also carries different weight if it’s being divided between a province’s two million students versus another’s 100,000, she added.
Quebec said it’s invested $82 million in a large-scale tutoring program, but Srivastava questions the effectiveness if it depends largely on online delivery, “given what we know about the virtual experience.” Meanwhile, Ontario in February pledged $175 million for school boards to implement tutoring programs, but mandated a very short timeline for implementation — “that’s another problem,” she said.
Yet Srivastava underlined that investments in education aren’t a waste. She pointed to studies that suggested that prolonged pandemic school closures would have a negative effect on a country’s annual GDP, including in G20 countries such as Canada.
“This is a real investment. It’s an economic investment. It’s a social investment. It is a human rights investment,” she said.
“It is every child’s right — globally and especially in Canada — to have a good quality education … and it has a big effect on our society long term.”
‘Learning loss is real’
Paul Bennett, director of Halifax-based education research and consultancy firm the Schoolhouse Institute, also felt underwhelmed by the learning recovery plan details the ministries and education departments provided. He called the approaches “scattered” and lacking focus.
Provinces and territories seem “unclear about what the priorities are. [Is it] learning recovery? Targeted improvement in literacy and numeracy? Or is it a general approach to supporting students and their wellbeing through trauma-informed approaches?” said Bennett, who is also an adjunct professor of education at Saint Mary’s University.
“Where you scatter the spending around through these three areas, you end up having negligible effect because there’s not enough concentrated on any one of the challenges to make much of a difference.”
Bennett took issue with regions that seemingly aren’t “acknowledging that learning loss is real and changes have to be made,” along with what he feels is a growing trend leaning away from standardized assessments.
“Suspending student assessment has created a problem because we don’t have the baseline data upon which to develop learning recovery plans,” he said.
“We’ve been further compromised by our inability to see how much time [has] been lost and the consequences for student learning. And so we’ve got a monumental challenge ahead of us.”
Bennett took British Columbia’s responses as a view “that because students were only out of school for eight to 10 weeks, depending on the school district, that they don’t seem to have a learning recovery problem.” He sees promise, however, in the info shared by Alberta.
The Prairie province is mandating assessments in Grades 1 through 3 starting this fall, along with follow-up supports for students found to be struggling, and is expanding an e-tutoring hub for older elementary grades.
Bennett also praised Quebec’s robust investments in tutoring programs and Ontario more recently following suit.
“Tutoring focused on kindergarten to Grade 3, on reading and numeracy, and in preparation for university studies in the senior high school [years] would make sense,” he said.
“Tutoring is the most effective form of learning support for pandemic school recovery and student recovery.”
Beyond ‘just the basics’
What Annie Kidder noticed in the recovery plans was a repeated focus on learning loss, particular in literacy and numeracy. However, what the public education advocate would prefer to see more is “a big picture, visionary, comprehensive plan” for addressing both the problems that arose during COVID-19 as well as issues that worsened in the past two years.
The traditional 3Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) remain important, but so are the “new basics,” said Kidder, executive director of People for Education, a national public education, research and advocacy group based in Toronto.
“It is vital that kids are where they should be in terms of reading, writing and math — in the early grades, in high school — but it’s also vital that they’re learning more about how to communicate, about relationships, about how to collaborate, about how they learn and about what are called variously transferable skills or durable skills,” she said.
“We do have to make sure that everybody is up-to-speed, but the definition of up-to-speed in 2022 is a lot different than it was, you know, 10 years ago.”
Kidder praises regions paying attention to student mental health and wellbeing, including those doing assessments in those areas as part of broader approaches to measuring student outcomes beyond “doing standardized tests in three subjects.”
She also sees potential in education ministries and departments — such as New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador — pledging to meet and work together with stakeholders on education recovery versus creating policy in isolation. She wants to see those consultations include multiple on-the-ground perspectives: from students, parents and educators to education researchers, health care experts and more.
“There’s often a gap between the idea you have as a policymaker and the reality on the ground,” Kidder said. “It’s one thing to write it all down and develop [a] beautiful policy. It’s another thing to have to implement that.”
Though broad talks might start out “a little bit messy” given multiple parties participating, Kidder noted, she thinks this approach will lead to stronger pandemic recovery plans that can also incorporate ongoing work, for instance, to address equity and systemic racism.
The road out of COVID-19 classrooms must incorporate shorter-term “catch-up” that’s “integrated within a longer-term plan,” she said, calling it recovery plus renewal.
“There’s no going back to normal. There’s no getting things back on track. There is moving forward and understanding… what kind of foundational role public education plays in all of our societal and economic success.”
COVID-19 has affected the past three school years. How have your students fared amid pandemic schooling? What are you most worried about? Share your experiences and concerns with us at [email protected] (Be sure to include your name and location. They may be featured on air on CBC News Network.)