After three consecutive school years of COVID-impacted learning, many teachers, students and parents across Ontario are breathing a sigh of relief, thankful that summer has finally arrived. Memories of online learning, hybrid classes and lessons via zoom are quickly fading into the distance, replaced by family vacations, summer camp and blessed downtime. I’d like to say that all is well in the world of education and that September will bring a return to normal, but I’d be lying if I didn’t share my concern about something I’ll call the COVID gap.
No one likes a Cassandra, and there’s very little upside to being a prophet of doom, particularly when the world is desperate for good news. So I understand parents might not be keen to hear about potential problems with their child’s learning. It’s summer, after all. We’re supposed to be on vacation. But it’s worth spending a few minutes pondering the road ahead if only to be prepared.
Since March 2020, Ontario students have endured more weeks of school closure than any other jurisdiction in North America and Europe. The impact of this disruption on student achievement is real and measurable, with gaps disproportionately evident amongst vulnerable student populations. I will argue that students who attended independent schools (i.e., schools like Trafalgar Castle that are part of the CIS Ontario and CAIS networks) fared better than many in public school systems, largely because of smaller class sizes – yes, size does matter even on Zoom – ample resources and higher levels of individualized support. As a school administrator, I would like to think that our independent school teachers also fared better than many of their public school colleagues, but I know it’s been a long haul for them, too.
Regardless of which groups of students were most negatively impacted, it must be said that almost all students suffered some degree of learning loss. I know that a small subset of parents will disagree and argue that their child thrived in a virtual classroom environment and was, in fact, happier. I concede that distance learning felt better and was emotionally safer for some students for various reasons, but I would still question whether strong gains were made in learning.
It’s no surprise to educators that students have fallen behind. I suspect it may be a surprise, however, to a few parents whose child’s recent report card says everything’s hunky-dory (when it’s not). I’m not blaming teachers. They’ve spent three school years toggling between online and in-person with ample confusion about what to report, alongside challenges such as how to assess an online student who declines to turn on their camera. Even parents who suspect their child is a bit behind might not truly understand the size of the learning gap unless they’ve had an academic assessment done. It’s not something we want to talk about because it feels like one more thing in a long list of things that aren’t going well at the moment.
To really understand the implications of what’s happened, let’s consider a student about to enter Grade 4 in September 2022. The last uninterrupted school year the student experienced was Kindergarten… Let that sink in… Kindergarten – long before reading skills are consolidated. The Ontario Grade 4 curriculum that this student will soon encounter assumes they will be “reading to learn” rather than “learning to read.” (Learning to read is typically a whole-class focus until Grade 3). If this particular student enters Grade 4 with weak reading comprehension – and even if they don’t, many of their classmates will – there is strong evidence that they will not only struggle in the coming year but will continue to struggle in future Grades unless effective intervention is put in place. The same can be said for numeracy and mathematics. (And a version of this scenario plays out with students in every grade, right through to university.)
So here’s what we’ve got – cohorts of students who we know are behind and will struggle to meet the expectations of next year’s curriculum. Even the Ministry of Education acknowledges this as a problem and is responding by providing parents in Ontario with $400 per child for tutoring. Here’s the problem. Closing the gap requires effective intervention, and effective intervention needs to be highly targeted to the specific area of need. General tutoring is likely to do little in the absence of knowledge about each student’s specific area of need. (And besides, $400 won’t buy you nearly enough tutoring hours to close any significant gap but that’s another issue).
To make matters worse – and I’m sorry to pour salt in the wound but it’s important to know what we’re dealing with – the impact of the pandemic goes well beyond academics. Just ask any teacher or school administrator to describe students today compared to students pre-pandemic and you’ll hear phrases like socially less mature, much more unfocused, more anxious, emotionally dysregulated, less capable of independent problem solving, really not great at conflict resolution, and struggling with teamwork. Make no mistake, these are serious challenges. A student may speak five languages, be a whiz at Calculus and know how to write a superb essay but if they can’t regulate their emotions, get along with others, problem solve or handle disagreements with respect, they are unlikely to be successful.
Where do we go from here? I can’t speak to public schools because the challenges of addressing problems across an entire school district are complex. I can speak, however, to what we are doing at our school because we are small, agile, well resourced and blessed with remarkable teachers, each and every one of whom is committed to student success.
We already know that some of the students who will come to us new in September from the public system will be behind. That’s okay. We ensure through our personalized admissions process that we can meet their needs and will have ample supports ready to begin closing the gap from day one. In addition, we plan to double down on diagnostic assessments at the beginning of the school year for all our students to determine where gaps are showing up across the grades. We’ll work closely with teachers to help them differentiate classroom instruction and assessment in order to address the needs of all our students, and will provide teachers with additional weekly planning time to allow for collaboration and professional development. Our new learning support centre will be up and running in September to provide additional help where needed. Our after-school math support program will target students who need help outside the classroom and our ongoing commitment to small class sizes will provide a built-in advantage for every learner. And finally, we are building more social and emotional programming into the regular school day with our new Thursday activity time that will provide opportunities for students to build stronger social relationships and feel a greater sense of connectedness, something sorely missed during our years of COVID.
I’m not sure anyone knows with certainty what September holds for schools. I suspect the days of government-mandated school closures and moves to online learning are well behind us. But it’s important we don’t conflate being back in person with being back to normal. COVID has left scars across our educational system and it’s important we face its impact openly and without blame. I, for one, love a good challenge and so does our school. For now, let’s all enjoy a few more weeks of summer fun but be ready when September comes to embrace a new year of learning with enthusiasm, spirit and a commitment to help every student achieve success!