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

Alberta completed 18,412 COVID-19 tests, as reported on Wednesday, for a test positivity rate of 9.5 per cent. (NIAID-RML via AP)
Highest daily count of 2021 so far: Alberta reports 1,699 COVID-19 cases

Variants now make up 59 per cent of Alberta’s active cases

Screen grab/ https://www.alberta.ca/stats/covid-19-alberta-statistics.htm#geospatial
COVID-19 cases continue to grow in the Wetaskiwin area

The City of Wetaskiwin currently has 141 active cases.

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and Premier Jason Kenney say the province would look at adding additional COVID-19 measures in the coming weeks if the virus continues to spread. (Photo by Government of Alberta)
Walk-in COVID-19 vaccination clinic to open in Red Deer

Alberta adds 1,345 new cases of the virus

Boston Pizza is one of the Wetaskiwin restaurants currently setting up a patio for in-person dining. Shaela Dansereau/ Pipestone Flyer.
City of Wetaskiwin to wave permit fees for temporary patio applications

City of Wetaskiwin Council unanimously carried a motion at the regular April… Continue reading

Kevin Buffalo in his traditional chicken dance regalia. (Photo submitted)
3rd Inaugural Grouse Symposium goes online

Virtual symposium will be held April 24

A lone traveler enters the Calgary Airport in Calgary, Alta., Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
VIDEO: Trudeau defends Canada’s travel restrictions as effective but open to doing more

Trudeau said quarantine hotels for international air travellers will continue until at least May 21

President Joe Biden holds a virtual bilateral meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
U.S. to help Canada with more COVID-19 vaccine supply, Biden says

The U.S. has already provided Canada with about 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine

In this image from video, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, center, is taken into custody as his attorney, Eric Nelson, left, looks on, after the verdicts were read at Chauvin’s trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd, Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Court TV via AP, Pool
George Floyd’s death was ‘wake-up call’ about systemic racism: Trudeau

Derek Chauvin was found guilty Tuesday on all three charges against him

sign
Alberta Biobord Corp. recently hosted a virtual open house from Stettler

The company plans to develop a fuel pellet and medium density fibre board (MDF) plant near the community

Ryan Applegarth. (RCMP photo)
Preliminary hearing date set for Applegarth

Ryan Jake Applegarth appeared briefly before the Ponoka Provincial Court over CCTV… Continue reading

The Rogers logo is photographed in Toronto on Monday, September 30, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin
Rogers investigating after wireless customers complain of widespread outage

According to Down Detector, problems are being reported in most major Canadian cities

People are shown at a COVID-19 vaccination site in Montreal, Sunday, April 18, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Nothing stopping provinces from offering AstraZeneca vaccine to all adults: Hajdu

Health Canada has licensed the AstraZeneca shot for use in people over the age of 18

Most Read