A student peers through the front door of Thorncliffe Park Public School in Toronto on Friday December 4, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

A student peers through the front door of Thorncliffe Park Public School in Toronto on Friday December 4, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

‘More than just a disruption:’ Education experts warn of pandemic-driven ‘crisis’

‘We need to mobilize more – everything that we can – to help teachers deal with this crisis’

Virtual learning for Kaaren Tamm’s daughter consisted of a five- to 10-minute video greeting each morning and afternoon, and then she’d stop paying attention. That was on a good day.

The Toronto mom says that’s all the four-year-old could musterto contribute inher junior kindergarten class, which shifted online twice this school year.

Easily distracted and prone to meltdowns, the girl did not adjust well when a COVID-19 case triggered a class quarantine and forced everyone to go digital for two weeks in October. It was just as bad when in-class learning halted for six weeks in January and February.

“There was no learning going on at all,” Tamm admits.

It turned out to be more than just routine defiance – Tamm’s daughter was diagnosed with autism in November.

Now that schools have reopened, Tamm says the girl is better able to focus and participate in person. But she suspects ongoing struggles to master fine motor skills – such as holding a pencil and cutting with scissors – were made worse by pandemic-related upheaval.

Tamm says the school is trying to find her an occupational therapist, but it could take a while. Still, she’s not worried.

“When the help does become available then I’m sure she will catch up,” says Tamm.

Whether derailed developmental and academic goals can – or will – be addressed is a pressing question for frazzled families still reeling from COVID-induced chaos.

One year after students were sent home for an extended spring break to suppress COVID-19 spread, early research and anecdotal reports point to measurable learning loss, racial and socioeconomic disparities, and an urgent need to mitigate harms that may not even be obvious yet.

“We need to mobilize more – everything that we can – to help teachers deal with this crisis,” says Carleton University neuroscience professor Amedeo D’Angiulli, who predicts more developmental and learning disorders due to a combination of delayed medical screenings and school interventions.

“The real wave will be that in two, three years we’ll wake up and we’ll see that we have more social inequality, illiteracy and other things that we then need to fix.”

D’Angiulli says there’s no question academic disruption has had myriad detrimental impacts extending to emotional, physical, social and mental well-being – the combination of which further hinders brain function.

He says he and his students analyzed about 100 papers on the pandemic’s impact on education and child development around the world, finding delays at every age to varying degrees and in different ways.

Of particular concern are the early readers in Grades 1, 2 and 3, says University of Alberta researcher George Georgiou, director of the J.P. Das Centre on Developmental & Learning Disabilities.

When Georgiou compared Alberta reading scores in September 2020 and January 2021, he found students in these grades improved, but were still performing six-to-eight months below their grade level.

“We know that 75 per cent of the kids who are not learning at grade-level by Grade 3 never read at grade-level later on,” Georgiou says.

“Because they cannot read, they tend to also act out, so it’s related to externalizing behavioural problems. They act out, they are more aggressive, (there’s) depression, lower self-esteem.”

It’s entirely possible those who struggled have improved and could finish the school year close to average, says Georgiou, but that depends on timely, targeted interventions.

He points to success in Alberta’s Fort Vermilion school division, which identified struggling readers in September and gave them focused tutoring four times a week. By January, 80 per cent of Grade 1 and 2 kids were reading within their grade level.

“This tells you that if you don’t provide intervention right away, you will end up in a situation where most of your kids in Grades 1, 2, 3 will be reading well below grade level. But if you act proactively … then you have good chances to support these kids who were left behind,” he says.

This places immense pressure on teachers, many of whom are already burned out, says York University education professor Sarah Barrett.

She surveyed 764 public and private school teachers last May and June, and did in-depth interviews with 50 to learn more about efforts to meet developmental milestones, some of which “became next to impossible.”

Barrett spoke to teachers again in December and January and found social and emotional hurdles just as worrisome, with teachers unsure how kids can ever gain ground on pandemic-prohibited people skills such as reading facial cues and body language.

“They sound really demoralized…. They’re very glad to have their students in front of them again, but they know that the students that need the most are the ones that aren’t getting what they need,” says Barrett, noting teachers feared most for students with special needs, those living in poverty, racialized and Indigenous students, as well as English-language learners.

“A full year is more than just a disruption. It means that across the entire system, adjustments have to be made.”

As daunting as that sounds, it’s only a crisis if we allow it to become one, says Julie Garlen, co-director of childhood and youth studies at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Benchmarks are socially constructed targetsthat can be changed, she says, and this is a good time to rethink the education system as a whole.

“Is there flexibility in those benchmarks? Why do we have the benchmark set as we do?” says Garlen.

“I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be benchmarks (but) I think that we can understand now that it’s not really possible to just go back to the old curriculum.”

However, there are risks to adjusting academic requirements, counters D’Angiulli.

He says provincial benchmarks are already set at “the bare minimum.”

“What happens if you say, ‘OK, let’s get rid of this and let’s shift’? It’s lowering further the expectations, and that is really, really very, very, very dangerous,” he says, predicting that could jeopardize our global standing if other countries prove better at maintaining their education goals.

“Inject money into education to avoid catastrophe.”

Education and international development expert Prachi Srivastava would like to see efforts focused on high risk neighbourhoods and schools, but points to structural barriers that make widespread reform difficult.

Education is largely the domain of each province and fails to integrate overlapping issues such as health, labour, childcare and gender equity, says Srivastava, associate professor at the University of Western Ontario.

She describes this as “the largest education emergency” in global history and wonders why there appears to be little evidence of concrete measures to combat it.

“It actually shows how myopic we have been in Canada in terms of understanding, recognizing and incorporating lessons from emergency education,” she says.

When it comes to primary and secondary education, she muses on strategies such as accelerated learning programs, or extending the school year to a 12-month cycle with reorganized breaks.

D’Angiulli also suggests a shorter summer break, one-on-one learning for at-risk students, and help for parents scrambling to assist their children.

Garlen urges policy makers to consult families and students when pursuing fixes, especially those prone to be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

The pandemic laid bare longstanding inequities in education that only worsened with the threat of COVID-19 infection, with some families more likely than others to live in crowded housing or have inconsistent internet access. Many didn’t have devices required for online learning, childcare or the ability of parents to work from home.

“Maybe could we not put all of the focus on just information and the consumption of content (but) focus on socialization and well-being and connections and relationships. Because I think that that is where students have suffered the most,” says Garlen.

“They can learn long division next year but if they don’t have support in recovering from the challenges that they face during this time that could be something that will follow them their whole lives.”

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Students from Cedar Hill Middle School play and hold a sign to protest proposed music cuts to school band programs in the Greater Victoria School District, during a Monday event. The district is facing a massive deficit and is considering a number of options for cutting costs. (Photo courtesy Laura Alcaraz-Sehn)
Massive student demonstration planned to protest Greater Victoria school band cuts

Band students from 14 SD61 schools will be at major intersections Thursday after school

Reuben Forsland in his East Sooke studio with the guitar he crafted from hemp wood that he hopes will start a conversation about sustainability. (Rick Stiebel - Sooke News Mirror)
East Sooke artisan strikes a chord with custom guitars

Guitars include wood from Hendrix childhood home in Seattle

Island Health has reported a COVID-19 exposure at Pacific Christian Elementary School on April 12. (Google Streetview/Screenshot)
COVID-19 exposure reported at Saanich elementary school

Pacific Christian Elementary School experienced exposure on April 12

Leon the squirrel gets a fancy snack of almonds and sunflower seeds from a well-meaning local, who really should be leaving Leon to his own foraging devices. (Submitted)
Squirrels don’t need your nuts, thanks

Consider birding instead of wildlife feeding, SPCA suggests

Jessica Sault of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation is hosting a virtual cedar weaving workshop through Royal Roads University on April 25. (Black Press Media file)
Cedar trees weave deeply into lives of coastal First Nations communities

Jessica Sault of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation hosts virtual cedar weaving workshop through Royal Roads

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United States President Joe Biden smile as they say farewell following a virtual joint statement in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pledges to cut emissions by 40% to 45% by 2030, short of U.S. goal

Trudeau announced target during a virtual climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: Have rising prices caused you to give up hope of buying a home?

Do you have a spare 50 grand or so kicking around (have… Continue reading

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of April 20

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

Letisha Reimer, 13, was killed Nov. 1, 2016 in a stabbing at Abbotsford Senior Secondary.
Second-degree murder conviction stands for Abbotsford school killer

Judge finds that Gabriel Klein is criminally responsible for death of Letisha Reimer

FILE – RCMP officers wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 stand by as protesters opposed to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion block rail lines, in Burnaby, B.C., on Friday, November 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Very scary’: B.C. travel rules too vague, shouldn’t involve police, civil liberties group says

BCCLA said that speaking with communities could have avoided top-down approach

Ocean Legacy Foundation members conduct a shoreline pollution cleanup in Vancouver. (OLP)
It’s time to end ‘suffocating’ plastic pollution along B.C. shorelines, advocates urge

This Earth Day, Ocean Legacy Foundation is launching a free educational platform to educate the public about plastic pollution

A teacher-librarian in Nanaimo was fired in 2019 for checking out an age-inappropriate graphic novel to a student. The discipline agreement was published Wednesday, April 21. (News Bulletin file photo)
B.C. teacher-librarian fired for checking out too-graphic graphic novel to student

Teacher had been previously disciplined and suspended on two occasions

Aria Pendak Jefferson cuddles ChiChi, the family cat that ran away two years ago in Ucluelet. The feline was missing until Courtney Johnson and Barry Edge discovered her in the parking lot of the Canadian Princess earlier this month. Aria and her parents were reunited with ChiChi in a parking lot in Port Alberni. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
An Island girl’s wish is answered as her cat came back

Courtenay family reunited with cat that went missing in Ucluelet in 2019

The Coastal Fire Centre is looking ahead to the wildfire season on Vancouver Island. (Phil McLachlan – Western News)
Coastal Fire Centre looking ahead at wildfire season on Vancouver Island

‘We’re asking people in the spring to be very careful’

Most Read