‘You have people in crisis teaching people in crisis’: How COVID-19 upended the lives of millions of Ontario children
It hasn’t been quite the graduating year Firdaus Shallo imagined.
The Grade 12 student who normally goes to C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute in North York is attending her last year of high school from her dining table, having shifted from her bedroom after realizing that looking at her bed made her sleepy.
But even then, it has been hard to focus.
Her mind drifts to her little sister, who is taking her Grade 4 class in her bedroom, down the hall. And her brother, in Grade 9, who keeps a game tab open on his computer and switches back and forth when he starts getting bored in virtual school.
“It’s really hard to manage my time and also have time to support my siblings,” said Shallo, 17. “Sometimes they get mad at me when they ask for help … and I just shoo them away because I have an assignment due in three hours.”
“My parents are really supportive … but they are gone until the evening,” said Shallo, whose parents work outside the home, one in a factory, the other in retail. The family opted for virtual school because they regularly see their elderly grandmothers, who live in the same building, and want to minimize any risk of exposing them to COVID-19. The family lives near Jane Street and Finch Avenue West in Toronto’s northwest corner, an area that has been hard hit by the virus.
Shallo, who is also a student trustee for the Toronto District School Board, feels she has easily adapted to online learning, but she’s keenly aware of the stress it has put on those around her.
“The other day I heard a parent on the balcony shouting at her daughter about online school,” said Shallo. “Everyone has such different home lives … and that also affects how they learn and how they focus in class.”
Shallo, like millions of students across the province, is in the midst of a school year like no other. COVID-19 forced the sudden shutdown of schools after March Break, and when classes resumed weeks later, everyone was forced to pivot to online with little preparation and no training. It wasn’t pretty.
The start of the school year in September wasn’t much better. With no direction from the Ministry of Education until late summer, boards were left scrambling to make in-person schools safe and build virtual schools from scratch.
The result was chaos. Face-to-face classes were not physically distanced; classrooms lacked proper ventilation; teachers protested a lack of protective gear. Within days, schools were hit with COVID-19 outbreaks; to date, 776 of Ontario’s public schools have had cases, resulting in kids or full classes being sent home. Meanwhile, virtual school, unprepared for the demand, was beset by technology challenges, a delayed start and a seemingly endless shuffling of students and teachers.
Together with the Ontario teachers strikes at the beginning of 2020, these disrupted school days have added up, leaving some to wonder how things are going for the millions of children in the province’s schools: Are our kids even learning? Is this a “lost year?” Who will be left behind when the dust settles?
“It’s been a lost year in many ways,” said Fernanda Yanchapaxi, a mother of two and an organizer with the advocacy group Ontario Parent Action Network. “You have families who send their kids to school, and while their kids may be happy, the families are fearful of getting the email from the principal that there is a case in school … Maybe it’s not a lost year academically for those kids, but it’s certainly unhealthy and stressful.
“And for families who are keeping kids at home in a virtual classroom, it’s the opposite. You may have the security that your child is somehow safe … but then you have the loss of the academic aspect and the social aspect,” said Yanchapaxi who has kept her kids home for virtual school after losing four members of her extended family to COVID-19. In addition to death, she said some kids are also dealing with parents losing their jobs, and in some cases, their homes.
“The education system was not perfect before, but with COVID-19, the gaps have broadened,” she said. “And I’m not sure that when the kids are all reunited again … that they will all be at the same place academically, emotionally or even psychologically. And I don’t know if we are prepared for that.”
Last August, the United Nations Secretary General issued a warning that the world could see an “education catastrophe” as a result of the worldwide disruption of the school year, adding that the impacts “may stretch beyond one generation of students.” And the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development determined that as a result of the spring disruption, the typical student might expect to see “something on the order of three per cent lower career earnings” with “disadvantaged students” seeing “larger impacts.”
A recent University of Alberta study found that students in Grades 1 to 3 who were struggling with reading prior to the pandemic were up to six months behind where they should have been when school started again in September.
And the kids in Ontario? How are they doing? We simply don’t know, experts say. Even more concerning is that we are doing nothing to find out.
“There is no large-scale system-wide data assessment of learning loss in Ontario taking place right now,” said Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, researcher and co-author of “Pushing the Limits: How Schools can Prepare our Children Today for the Challenges of Tomorrow.”
“We shouldn’t be assuming what’s going on, we should be finding out,” she said. “In the absence of our provincial government doing their basic due diligence at the system level of determining how much students are learning, and how behind they are, the most appropriate thing to do is to look internationally, and all indicators are showing that kids are not progressing normally.”
Gallagher-Mackay said EQAO standardized testing would have been one way to assess how kids are doing, but it was cancelled for those in Grades 3 and 6. And if a large-scale assessment was too difficult to co-ordinate, even a sampling would have given us a snapshot of how kids are faring.
Without data, it’s impossible to discuss a solution.
“We don’t have a pandemic recovery plan for students,” she said, adding that in other countries like the United Kingdom, the government has committed $1.7 billion (Cdn) for tutors to help students who have the greatest needs. “Here, it’s not even on the table.”
Of all the provinces, only Prince Edward Island began an early review of the curriculum last spring, with an eye to addressing the growing learning gaps and modifying lessons, knowing students would be behind come the fall.
In Ontario, initial funding was put into expanding summer school and beefing up online resources and math tutoring, said Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce.
The government, she said, provided “70 per cent more students than the year prior with engaging learning opportunities to mitigate learning loss” and has similar plans for next year. The province has also increased funding for its “learning opportunities grant” by $18 million, which boards use to support at-risk schools.
Lecce said recently “we’re very cognizant of these learning gaps. We’re seeing that phenomena globally. Our priority as a province and as a ministry is to ensure that we put in place the programs and supports, particularly for at-risk communities.” He said the province plans to unveil a plan for the summer and September 2021 early next year.
New Democrat MPP Marit Stiles said she’s been asking the government if it has any plans to evaluate the impact of the pandemic on students and “they had no information. “They’re not talking about any evaluation around learning, and I think in addition to the obvious risk of COVID-19, this is what is keeping families up at night. This is what they are concerned about.”
She said summer school “is not the answer” and that P.E.I. was right to take a proactive approach. “There’s no problem with the idea of extra supports throughout the summer, but that doesn’t address the issues students are dealing with right now.”
Western University Prof. Prachi Srivastava said, for many students, the impact of the pandemic will extend into next fall. There is “a lack of concrete planning,” she said. “We actually need to have a two-year plan … We don’t have one.”
Catherine Haeck, an associate professor in the economics department at the University of Quebec, said her biggest concern is that school closures “exacerbate inequalities” across the country.
“Children whose parents have resources, they probably didn’t lose too much ground during the spring. Parents made sure of that,” said Haeck. “In other families, parents may not have the time or resources to do that.”
In September, the TDSB collected data on who was attending virtual schools, and found more lower-income and non-white families opted for online-only classes than white and wealthier families. As the Star reported, some low-income parents felt forced to make the choice in order to protect the health of multi-generational families and/or their ability to go out to work.
In total, in the TDSB, 17,349 high school students and 62,172 elementary students are learning online.
“This year is like no other, however our commitment to students and their academic achievement and well-being remains the same,” said TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird. “We’re mindful that students at our in-person schools or virtual schools may have different experiences, but schools will track learning progress so that we can address any learning gaps as we have in previous years. In the meantime, our teachers and education workers continue to support our students, including those who may be struggling.”
Utcha Sawyers, executive director of Boys & Girls Club of East Scarborough, which serves an area with one of the highest child poverty rates in the province, said her clients are worried about “keeping their kids afloat.”
“There is so much economic inequity in this community,” said Sawyers. “There was this assumption, when COVID-19 hit, by the school board that all the families here would have internet, not realizing that most people here … use their cellphone for internet access.”
Sawyers got a lot of calls in the spring from families who didn’t have internet or a laptop and couldn’t afford to buy one. The club stepped up to support the community.
“A lot of the systemic barriers and gaps in this community already existed prior to COVID, but I think the pandemic has really amplified those barriers,” said Sawyers, who added that in a recent survey of the community, parents said education and food security were their primary concerns.
Mohan Doss, director of newcomer programs and service at WoodGreen, a social services agency in Toronto, said newcomers and refugees with limited English literacy skills are unable to help their children.
“We started off with two families who asked us to help support their kids who were learning from home,” said Doss, adding that in the spring when schools shut down, the settlement agency started an tutoring program for math and English that eventually extended to 130 families and 240 kids.
But the program hasn’t continued this fall since kids are back at school, but the language problems are still there. “The challenge now is that parents are not able to support their kids, and in many cases can’t even understand the communication that is coming from the school,” said Doss.
Sawyers said it has been difficult to see her community struggle and she fears that even after the pandemic, it will be left behind.
“My biggest fear is that as a society, we will not have learned anything from this pandemic,” she said, adding it’s not just about putting in temporary solutions like food banks, but coming up with “long-term sustainable responses” that will help the community grow and thrive academically and socially.
“We don’t want to be left in a state of emergency for the next five years,” said Sawyers. “Our youth were already experiencing such hardship to access the tools to thrive and survive academically, and in the time of a pandemic, they have been even more impacted … and the question is who is prioritizing their success to make sure they aren’t falling through the gaps?”
Even prior to the pandemic, there was little research on how grade schoolchildren learn in online-only environments.
“The studies that do look at online learning focus on programs that have been tailored for online learning. It’s not like now, where teachers are being asked to teach online with very little training, and they are really learning on the spot,” said Haeck. “As a result, if the best research with the best conditions find that it’s not producing the same outcome as regular school, it’s doubtful that teachers with little to no training will be able to produce similar outcomes.”
Studies that looked at successful online learning determined it requires a different way of teaching altogether. And it requires specific skills from the student: being organized, autonomous, and an independent learner.
“You can’t expect a Grade 2 (student) to have these kinds of skills,” said Haeck.
Gallagher-Mackay said that’s why collecting data on online schools is so important.
“There is incredible variability on how online school is being done,” she said. As well as in-person and virtual school, there is the hybrid teaching model of virtual and in-person at the same time. “And what we are hearing from families is that how it’s being done makes a huge difference in how kids are learning.”
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That’s something Toronto parent Karen Brackley could tell you without any research study. She said her son and daughter have had such vastly different experiences with the TDSB’s virtual school that it’s hard to believe they are in the same board.
Her son, who attends Grade 5 French Immersion, waited weeks before getting an English teacher who then seemed unprepared for the job. “Sometimes the kids thought the screen was frozen because she just wouldn’t speak, but it wasn’t.” Within weeks, she was gone.
Her son finally got a French teacher but it was clear he had limited technology skills, had no plan for the class, would sign into class late, rarely gave homework, and rarely gave kids feedback or assessments. “It was horrendous, and by this time, our standards were pretty low.”
Meanwhile, Brackley’s Grade 2 daughter has had a great teacher. “I still think she will be behind because learning online is hard, but our teacher has been amazing and is really on the ball: she is patient, has unique ways of teaching, enunciates, and makes it really easy for the kids to learn.”
She said there should be guidelines for teachers on how to teach online to make the experience positive for everyone.
According to the TDSB’s Ryan Bird, teachers got one to two days of training “to familiarize themselves with the online learning platform.” He said there is “ongoing support for any teachers who need it.”
Brackley said her son, who had been struggling emotionally due to his poor virtual school experience, recently returned to in-person school and faced another troubling reality: he was way behind his peers.
“He was so far behind, both emotionally and academically,” added Brackley, who said the teacher told her her son was two years behind in most subjects, despite her efforts to supplement through tutoring. “This is why I believe this is not just one lost year.”
In the absence of quantifiable data, we have no choice but to rely on anecdotes to show us what’s taking place on the ground. And the experiences of families in this post-COVID educational reality tell us, like all children, everyone is unique.
But in the dozens of stories shared with the Star, there are common themes that surfaced: parents forced to make decisions with limited information; a lack of report cards and assessments for parents to track their child’s learning; failure in communication between boards and parents; and a diminishing sense of confidence in the school system.
Toronto parent Katie Beauchesne said she opted for in-person school in September because her daughter, Olivia, struggled last spring with the lack of face-to-face interaction. She started the fall in a Grade 4 class of 15 students, but an abrupt mid-semester shuffle by the TDSB increased the number to 27.
Beauchesne’s daughter, who was once excited to go back to in-person learning, began displaying signs of discontent and crabbiness in the morning due to the sudden changes in her classroom.
Beauchesne worries about what a larger number of students means for her daughter’s chances at catching up, as she noticed her daughter is now falling behind in her writing skills. Due to the strike and COVID-19, she said she hasn’t seen a report card for her daughter in over a year and is unsure whether she’s meeting the expected learning outcomes.
For Chandra Farrer, the COVID-19 crisis has shaken her faith in the public school system. Farrer said her children, who are both in a Grade 4/5 split in face-to-face school in the Toronto Catholic District School Board, have been taught by supply teachers since the beginning of the year. They haven’t been told when they will get a permanent one.
“There are kids in the class who have some behavioural issues, due to a lack of teacher, there are no classroom norms,” she said. “Obviously the kids who have behavioural issues are not learning, and not getting the supports they need. But it’s also impacting the other kids.”
“We are really worried we are going to lose this year,” said Farrer. “We are really fortunate to be able to afford the extra support (of hiring tutors), but there are many children at my kids’ school who won’t be able to get those, and probably need it.”
“I think I expected virtual schools to have some challenges with teachers because it was new and different. I never expected in a face-to-face environment that there wouldn’t be a teacher in the room,” she said. “As someone who is a supporter of a public education, I never anticipated that we would be struggling the way we are.”
For Grade 11 student Vandy Widyalankara, there has been little time to analyze the changes that have been thrust upon her. The International Baccalaureate student at White Oaks Secondary School in Oakville said the quadmester method of learning — where students take two courses over 10 weeks instead of a full course load for an entire semester — has been hard to adjust to.
“I am taking a biology course right now, and it’s been really difficult and insanely fast,” said Widyalankara. “Because we have to learn so much in 10 weeks, there are entire units that have been taken out because we don’t have time to learn it. Then on certain topics, you learn the material one week, have the quiz the same week, and a test the following week. It is jam-packed.”
She said many of her peers have also expressed concern over how much of what they are learning they’ll be able to retain, and if students are getting the critical skills they need for university.
“You are not spending so much time learning concepts that will be the basis of your university education,” she said. “And all the lab component of work has also been cut out and replaced with online simulations. It’s totally not the same.”
While Toronto elementary school teacher Laura McCoy is grateful to be back in the classroom, she too knows school is not the same place it was prior to the pandemic. She said the year has been incredibly difficult for students without extracurriculars, sports, guidance counsellors, and with limited access to mental health supports. “I have seen in my class students struggling,” she said.
Research published in September by Children’s Mental Health Ontario revealed two-thirds of young people, aged 12 to 25, believed their mental health had gotten worse under the pandemic. Twenty per cent have reported severe anxiety. Many reported mild to moderate levels of anxiety and trouble sleeping and concentrating.
Dr. Mario Cappelli, a child psychiatrist and the senior clinician-scientist at the Ontario Provincial Centre of Excellence for Child and Youth Mental Health, said anecdotally, he has noticed youth in Grades 7, 8 and 9 have had the biggest psychological challenges due to a sense of isolation and disengagement from friends and a “normal” school environment. He also worries about high school students who are delaying significant adulthood milestones like graduation, prom and moving away to university.
His biggest worry, however, is for students with learning or physical disabilities who have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). In a letter to the Ministry of Education this summer, the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner stated that as a result of school disruptions, students with special needs “have fallen even further behind than their peers.”
“It is now more than ever important for schools to take a look at every student who has an IEP and ensure that the IEP is being followed, particularly for students who … are doing it online,” said Cappelli. “You can’t just assume things are going to be OK.”
High school teacher Jason Kunin, who has been teaching virtual school, said his focus has been on ensuring his students are supported mentally in addition to academically.
“What I am seeing is that kids are coming to class with a lot of stress, a lot of sadness, and mental health issues,” he said. “In terms of skills … they have been amazing. But I have also had kids who are really struggling emotionally,” he said, adding the only way to identify problems in virtual school is to look at how engaged students are in class.
“If we were in a face-to-face class, I would probably be able to identify things faster, or address it a bit more effectively,” he said.
But Kunin also questions: who is looking out for the teachers?
According to a Canadian Teachers’ Federation survey of 14,000 teachers in mid-October, 46 per cent of teachers said they were “very stressed, struggling to cope” and feeling unhappy. Almost 70 per cent said they had concerns around their mental health in relation to their jobs.
“You have people in crisis teaching people in crisis, we are all in crisis,” Kunin said. “And yet, we’re kind of expected to not acknowledge this, and try to proceed as if it’s business as usual, and pretend we are all OK, and we’re not.”
So what can we take away from this huge experiment in education that no one expected to be a part of? Some experts say maybe it is time to re-evaluate what exactly we consider to be “learning” and what constitutes an “education.”
“What does that mean, a lost year?” asks sociology professor Deena Kara Shaffer. “That there is nothing to learn? That it’s a string of days with no opportunity for new moments of joy or appreciation or wonder? The word lost is pretty bleak.”
Shaffer, who is an expert in resilient learning and co-creator of Thriving in Action, a Ryerson University program that helps students develop skills to overcome adversity, said the idea we have “lost” a year focuses too much on the traditional school structure, and learning that takes place between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., Monday to Friday.
Shaffer said society’s emphasis on marks and what a “good student” looks like may need to change. And the pandemic presents the opportunity for a rethink. “How can we do sustainable learning that doesn’t have our backs up against the wall, where we’re so anxious we can’t sleep; where we’re working to the point of burnout,” she said.
That is precisely why Kiera Vanderlugt, principal of Ogden Junior Public School and Alpha Alternative school, both in downtown Toronto, began the year with what she calls “social emotional” learning, talking to kids’ about their fears and beliefs around the pandemic — and not a focus on hard academics.
“It establishes trust and safety,” she said. “If you don’t have a positive relationship with school you can’t learn.”
Vanderlugt doesn’t see this as a “lost year.” Rather, she said the year has brought her students closer together, made them stronger and taught them to think outside the box to overcome the constraints physical distancing has imposed upon them.
On one recent morning, two Alpha students put her comments into practise: friends, separated in different classroom cohorts, found a way to abide by physical distancing markers in the playground yet still kick a ball back and forth. “See that!” Vanderlugt said, watching them troubleshoot their situation. “They figured it out. They found a way.”
“I am continually amazed at how quickly they’ve dealt with all the changes,” she said. “It’s like they’re not even making a sacrifice. Kids are so resilient.”
For behavioural therapist Katy Albert, who teaches resilience to children and families, the pandemic is an opportunity for learning how to cope and overcome challenges. She said in situations we can’t control, like a pandemic, it’s important for children to experience the situation and feel upset, and for us to “normalize and validate” those feelings. “We need to talk to kids about their feelings and let them know they are normal to have.”
Albert said we also need to let them know they can have lots of different feelings at the same time. “We need to let them know that you can be struggling; that you can have some adversity and still enjoy what’s good.”
That’s the mindset Shallo said has worked for her this school year.
Despite the challenges of 2020, she said she can’t help but think this could be the beginning of a “whole new meaning to what education is.”
“I don’t think we have lost a year, but I feel like education has taken on a different role. If you were to compare our education from February to now, it is very different, but in a good way.”
“We have learned so much about how we can use online platforms, we have learned how we can reach out to different students and cater to them without being in-person,” she said. “I feel like this year could be a chance for something better than what we have had.”
With files from Kristin Rushowy
This is the first of a two-part series about how students are coping in a year like no other. Next, lessons in resiliency.
Noor Javed is a Toronto-based reporter covering current affairs in the York region for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @njaved
Nadine Yousif is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering mental health. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Follow her on Twitter: @nadineyousif_
Michele Henry is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star, writing health and education stories. Follow her on Twitter: @michelehenry
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