Learning gaps are the next COVID challenge for schools.

Last week thousands of students in Ontario returned to in-person learning. This marked the latest in a series of rolling dates that saw kids returning to Ontario schools even as that province continues to battle stubbornly high COVID 19 numbers. Citing a reduction in community spread, Doug Ford’s conservatives chose February 16th as the re-opening day for schools in the Toronto, Peel and York regions.

Reaction to the decision has been mixed and has followed a pattern similar to other jurisdictions across the country. On one side, the government was posting messages about extra precautions and improved cleaning practices. On the other you had opposition parties and labour organizations clamouring for more assurances that schools were indeed safe. Somewhere in the middle you had parents; torn between the angst of at-home learning and the uncertainty of their local school’s capacity to keep their kids COVID free. Those concerns are not unfounded, of course. Schools are not hospitals. Physical distancing, preventative ventilation and good student hygiene were undoubtedly not part of the construction plan when the walls went up.

For better or worse, however, the deed is done, and the next few weeks will determine the effectiveness of Ontario’s “back to school” plan. If it goes poorly, schools will be re-shuttered and the government will need to answer some pretty tough questions. If it doesn’t go poorly, well that’s when the real work begins.

You see, there hasn’t been much argument that kids aren’t much better off in school than out of it. Whether for their own well-being, that of their parents, or as an economic impetus, having a place to send our young ones every day that isn’t our own kitchen table has multiple and tangible benefits. Although many of the statements about student mental wellness and school attendance have been based on what school used to be, as opposed to what it has become, it would be hard to argue against the common logic. The pressing question isn’t whether kids should be in school or not, it is what to do with them when they get there.

It is this element that has seemed almost forgotten in the conversation. Much like there is a general consensus that students should return to classes as soon as it is safe, there is also a general consensus that students have fallen behind because of COVID 19 closures. In one recent study out of the United States, it was suggested that pandemic based learning had cost students a third of a year in academic progress. The same study concluded that the gap was larger in students whose jurisdictions had gone fully on-line, and was more pronounced in Black children. Indeed, the data showed that Black students’ ability, as measured through standardized tests, decreased an additional fifty percent in comparison to White students. Put another way, where White students were behind by one third of a year, Black students were behind by a full half.

The study was small and thus quite limited, but it does raise some troubling concerns. Once school starts up again, many students, particularly BIPOC students, will be behind the eight ball. That begs the question of the extent to which jurisdictions have turned their minds to how they will deal with that reality ?

As is often the case, the burden for navigating this issue has fallen squarely on the backs of teachers. Having to determine academic standing of a student when they perhaps hadn’t completed the previous grade due to COVID closure was one of the many challenges facing us when learning resumed in the fall of 2020. Teachers were then asked to make up gaps while simultaneously not pushing the kids too hard for fear of exacerbating an already stressful situation. Throw in at-home learning differences, achievement gaps in racialized as well as impoverished communities, and the fact that we are all still living in fear of the next COVID-19 outbreak, and you get some small sense of the challenges. Teachers are working overtime to navigate this new reality, but the battle has been, an will undoubtedly continue to be, decidedly uphill.

There are some fairly large ramifications here, even beyond the social justice aspects. Take for example, post-secondary institutions. One wonders how students from Nova Scotia, who have had the benefit of a more traditional, academically rigorous 2020/21 year due to low COVID numbers, will stack up against applicants from other areas when it comes to admission requirements. Ontario, by sheer volume, obviously graduates more students than any other province. By simple extrapolation, they take up a greater number of post-secondary seats. When it comes to a program as competitive as, say, Dalhousie Nursing, will a 96% from Ontario still beat out a 95% from here at home?

Last year, many students saw their grade 12 year interrupted in their final semester, but universities and community colleges had marks from the fall of 2019 upon which to base academic entrance ranking. I’m not certain the results from 2020 will provide similar clarity, particularly in jurisdictions where at-home learning went on for extended periods of time. The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that the graduating class of 2021 will consist of many students whose last full year of face-to-face academic study was their grade 10 year. One wonders how the likely gaps will play into admission requirements, particularly for highly competitive programs.

This is only one example of the complexity of this issue, of course, but when schools re-opened here in Nova Scotia in the fall of 2020, teachers weren’t given much in the way of a road map on how to proceed. In defence of those who make such decisions, there really wasn’t much of a map to be had. Regardless, many felt that the “What do we do now?” question went largely, although perhaps understandably, unanswered.

I feel that nationally we have moved beyond that point. Although getting schools reopened has been a major focus for all levels of government, that can not the end of it. Getting kids back to school is only half the battle. Getting kids forward is where the real challenge lies.

It will be interesting to see if governments commit half as much to the one as they have to the other.


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