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

Additional COVID-19 exposures have been reported at Arbutus Global Middle School and Mount Doug Secondary School. (Google Streetview/Screenshot)
Additional COVID-19 exposures reported at two Saanich schools

New dates of exposure added to Arbutus Global Middle School and Mount Doug Secondary School

Photo collage of loved ones lost to substance use and overdose. (Photo courtesy Moms Stop The Harm)
B.C. and Victoria’s overdose deaths still rising five years after public health emergency declared

Moms Stop the Harm calls on B.C. to provide safe supply in response to deadly illicit drug use

Former Saanich councillor Dean Murdock hosts a live episode of his podcast on April 14 and tackleto tackle housing issues in the region. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)
Live episode of Saanich podcast focuses on region’s housing issues

Dean Murdock, panel of guests go live on Zoom for Amazing Places podcast April 14

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip wave goodbye to the crowd at Vancouver International Airport in October 2002. (CP PHOTO/Richard Lam)
SOOKE HISTORY: Remembering dinner with the Queen and Prince Philip

Royal couple visited Victoria for Commonwealth Games banquet in 1994

New programs and services aimed at helping the unhoused find shelter or housing in Victoria, and to take advantage of support services of various kinds, could be funded if a City of Victoria grant application is successful. (Black Press Media file photo)
Victoria seeks $3M to $4M in grant funds to enhance community services for unhoused population

Various supports, services for unhoused population part of broad-based funding application

Burnaby MLA Raj Chouhan presides as Speaker of the B.C. legislature, which opened it spring session April 12 with a speech from the throne. THE CANADIAN PRESS
B.C. NDP promises more health care spending, business support in 2021 budget

John Horgan government to ‘carefully return to balanced budgets’

A youth was arrested following a car crash on Wallace Street on Saturday, April 10. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)
Onlookers laugh and jeer as B.C. teen beaten, then forced to strip and walk home

Police arrest older teen, call video shared on social media ‘disturbing’

A lady wears a sticker given out after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS
B.C.’s COVID-19 case count slows after last week’s peak

3,219 new cases since Friday, 18 additional deaths

North Cowichan councillor Tek Manhas did not violate the municipality’s code of conduct by posting a sexist meme on Facebook, council concludes. (File photo)
B.C. municipality to take no action against councillor who posted sexist meme

Tek Manhas’s meme doesn’t violate North Cowichan council’s code of conduct, municipality concludes

A 41-person air task force, including 12 members from 407 Long Range Patrol Squadron at 19 Wing Comox, seized more than $3 million CND worth of cocaine as part of Op Caribbe. Photo by Canadian Armed Forces Operations/Facebook
Vancouver Island team helps make $368 million three-tonne cocaine seizure

12 members from 19 Wing Comox involved in Op Caribbe

Killer whales surface near Sebastion Beach in Lantzville on Sunday, April 11. (Photos courtesy Ella Smiley)
Chainsaw and friends near the beach thrill orca watchers in Lantzville

Jagged-finned orca named Chainsaw and 17 others spent hours off Sebastion Beach this weekend

Nootka Sound RCMP and DFO Conservation and Protection Officers seized this 30 foot vessel, fishing gear and equipment as well as Chinook salmon, salmon roe, rock fish and ling cod after an investigation on Sept. 11. A judge in Campbell River on February hit the owner and his accomplices with significant fines, a ban on holding fishing licences and loss of equpment, including the boat’s motor and trolling motor. RCMP photo
Washington State trio’s fisheries violations the worst veteran officer has seen in 20 years

Judge bans three men from fishing or holding a fishing licence anywhere in Canada

—Image: contributed
Indoor wine tastings still allowed in B.C., not considered a ‘social gathering’

“Tasting is really just part of the retail experience. The analogy I use is you wouldn’t buy a pair of pants without trying them on.”

A sign on a shop window indicates the store is closed in Ottawa, Monday March 23, 2020. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business is raising its estimate for the number of businesses that are considering the possibility of closing permanently. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Small business struggling amid COVID-19 pandemic looks for aid in Liberals’ budget

President Dan Kelly said it is crucial to maintain programs to help businesses to the other side of the pandemic

Most Read