LIKE SO MANY FAMILIES and children around the world, Canadians are looking with relief to a more open, carefree summer and normal return to school later this year. But after 18 months of profound disruption, will “normal” be good enough? Are we on track to set all children up for success in a world that often seems more uncertain – and unequal – than ever before?
This article begins by examining how Canadian schools have fared during COVID-19 compared to those in other jurisdictions. We then turn to evidence-based ways that educators can ensure a better, stronger, and more equitable start in September 2021.
Educational equity is COVID-19’s shadow crisis
While students are less likely to contract or die from COVID, around the world their lives have been deeply disrupted by the pandemic. At its peak, schools serving 1.6 billion students were closed. Today, UNESCO’s global tracker shows that, a year into the crisis, “partial opening” is the norm. Overall, North American schools were closed in whole or in part for online learning for longer durations than experienced in most other parts of the world.
A sobering reality of the COVID-19 schooling experience is that even the best-resourced and highest-performing education systems in the world have heightened their tendency to privilege better-off children (UN Secretary General, 2020; OECD, 2020). Students from households with greater levels of connectivity, higher levels of parental education, greater availability of parental time for engagement, and in-home availability of books and materials have much better ability to access and benefit from distance learning.
In Canada as elsewhere, responses to COVID-19 have led to a patchwork of educational offerings. While students in Atlantic Canada and British Columbia have largely enjoyed face-to-face instruction, in other parts of Canada, students continue to experience periods of full-time or blended online learning from home. “Virtual schools” – intended as an emergency response – are a new feature of the landscape in Ontario and Alberta. Across the country, sports and extracurricular activities that build engagement and keep kids active have been paused.
Connectivity has not saved us. Access to broadband is not considered an essential service in Canada; coverage is both expensive and sometimes unavailable, especially in rural areas. Schools in some jurisdictions are still struggling to deliver appropriate devices to students. Stories abound of Canadian children who, one year into the pandemic, have limited bandwidth, are using old technologies, and are functioning without microphones or earphones. It is common to hear of kids whose attendance has dropped, who are disengaged, or who are missing from school altogether.
A growing body of large-scale international evidence shows that educational disruptions today and during other periods have caused impacts both on students’ academic achievement, and on their social and emotional well-being. Virtually all large-scale studies in OECD countries during COVID-19 (including from Belgium, the Netherlands, England, and the U.S.), have shown that students’ learning has fallen behind where it would have been for their age and grade levels in previous years. Overall, math scores have declined more than scores in literacy-related assessments and the youngest learners seem to have lost the most ground (Bailey, 2021; Education Endowment Foundation, n.d.).
For example, one U.S. study of over 400,000 students showed that the proportion of students starting Grade 1 two years or more behind grade level had risen from 27 percent to 40 percent. “As a result, a hypothetical school that needed to offer intensive intervention to 100 students in the fall of 2019 is faced with making up for the lost instruction for 148 students in 2020.”(mClass/Amplify, 2020).
Other studies from past crises and disruptions are even more concerning. These show that learning gaps can continue to grow even after schools return to normal (Andrabi et al., 2020). Further, school disruptions can have harsh cumulative effects, lowering chances of secondary completion and reducing labour market earnings of affected children many years later (Jaume & Willlen, 2019).
Perhaps most importantly, COVID-19 will not impact students equally. Recent studies show larger average gaps for relatively disadvantaged students, such as those living in low-income households or where parents have less education, or additional language learners. In the U.S., which tracks measures of racial inequality, Black and Hispanic students are also, on average, further behind. When surveyed during COVID-19, these are the same populations of learners who report facing a larger number of barriers and disruptions to their learning; who have lower access to technology; and who report fewer opportunities to get support from an adult at home or in the school (Chu & Lake, 2021).
In Canada, we know that all our kids are under strain. But we have little empirical evidence, beyond immediate experience, to tell us how our kids are doing overall, much less to spotlight where equity gaps are most severe. For the most part, large-scale provincial assessments and high-quality comparable surveys of student well-being are not available. Small-scale studies – such as one conducted recently in Alberta, and a recent report from the Toronto District School Board – show significant year-on-year gaps in early reading proficiency (Johnson, 2021; Alphonso, 2021). Education budgets and plans for the 2021 school year are being settled now, before school boards and higher educational institutions have begun to release data on school attendance, graduation, and applications to post-secondary education. Already, we can see that this lack of data on equity and other vulnerabilities is leading to a limited focus on educational recovery in planning and budget processes for 2021/2022. In this sense, Canadian educational systems may be flying blind.
Yet even before COVID-19, we knew that Canadian students from households in the bottom income quintile across Canada achieved the equivalent of one year less of schooling than students from households in the top income quintile. A recent study suggests that in many Canadian jurisdictions, the average student from a low-income household does not leave compulsory school with the skills needed to proceed to post-secondary education (Haek & Lefebvre, 2020).
In summary: International evidence and recent trends in Canada suggest that harms from COVID-19 will almost certainly exacerbate educational inequality. COVID-19 has disrupted learning and wellbeing for most students in Canada – but its impacts are unlikely to be evenly distributed.
In other countries, efforts to redress inequity have already begun
Around the world, countries have responded to the educational needs created by COVID-19-related disruptions with programs and initiatives that aim to jump-start learning and support social and emotional well-being for those students most disadvantaged by the pandemic. For example:
- As early as June 2020, the government of the Netherlands committed $278 million US for students who need extra academic support due to COVID-19 school disruptions.
- In November 2020, Britain announced a £1-billion commitment to help students “catch up” after school closures, including £350 million for tutoring, targeted at the disadvantaged students who were most affected.
- Most recently, the American stimulus package passed into law in March 2021 included a commitment of $129 billion for K–12 education. While most of those funds were to support safe re-opening, it also contained a commitment of $22 billion – equivalent to twenty days of extra schooling – to support learning recovery through tutoring, summer school, and extended hours programs alongside targeted support for students with disabilities and young people facing homelessness.
These examples suggest a strong focus internationally on academic catch-up programs. We know less about what governments are doing to ensure that schools adjust to meet the social and emotional needs of kids, an area that research suggests is of great importance after the widespread trauma of the past year (Hough & Witte, 2021).
Apart from a few small or failed initiatives, it appears that Canadian policymakers are just beginning to think about how to redress the impacts of COVID-19 on student learning and well-being. Quebec recently announced a program to hire online tutors to support struggling students; while B.C. has announced a $23-million supplement for vulnerable learners that could cover tutoring, mental health support, or additional staff hiring.
In many parts of the country, community organizations have stepped in with academic and other kinds of support. But a federal program that promised to provide funding for university-level volunteers, with enormous potential for serving the needs of disadvantaged students, fell apart in the shadow of scandal, leaving the energies of tens of thousands of registered volunteers untapped.
Canadian students will need more – and there is a wealth of evidence to guide us
It will take a whole-of-society effort to ensure Canadian students make a successful return to school in September 2021. We already know that the economic challenges faced by some households are intensifying, and that national and provincial budgets are likely to contract. Policymakers will need to focus on a few cost-effective ideas to guide their actions. Research points us in three main directions:
- Don’t act like it’s business as usual.
Much recent research suggests that schools will need to start where kids are this fall. Slimming back the curriculum to ensure a balance between mastery of the essentials and in-depth opportunity for social and emotional learning is an approach that has been widely used during recovery from different types of crises around the world (Winthrop, 2020; Srivastava et al., 2020). Students’ connection to school – perhaps jeopardized through repeated interruptions – is reinforced with opportunities for creativity, play, and collective action.
- Engage parents and communities, early and often.
COVID-19 has reminded many educators that education is a partnership between home and school (Winthrop, 2020). It also led to many experiments for improving the link between parents and schools – from SMS messaging to parents in Botswana, which improved student’s math learning; to parent hotlines and weekly meetings with school-based community liaisons. Partnerships between schools and community organizations were essential during COVID-19. A recent OECD study suggests that interactions between parents and schools were not very prominent in some Canadian jurisdictions prior to the pandemic (OECD, 2021). Postpandemic, we should be aiming for more – not less – community and parental engagement in schools, including through models that allow community organizations to provide wrap-around academic and non-academic supports to kids (Murray et al., 2021).
- Provide extra opportunities for kids to catch up.
A strong body of evidence suggests two key ways to support a strong start to the 2021 school year for all kids, especially those most disadvantaged during the pandemic.
Summer learning programs – especially those that utilize trained teachers, structured pedagogy, enrichment experiences, and high levels of teacher-student engagement – have been shown to provide strong gains in learning (Alexander et al., 2016). Even modest efforts to promote learning over the summer months can be effective. For example, Harvard’s summer learning program mailed ten books to students over the summer, matched to students’ reading interests, with email/texts to parents. This simple program was shown to promote more than one month of gains in reading skills.
Tutoring – through one to one or small group instruction – is also highly effective, especially when based on sustained relationships between a tutor and student, and when using good-quality materials aligned to classroom instruction. Even programs offered by volunteers, peers, or family members, when trained, produce surprisingly strong outcomes for kids ranging from stronger academic performance to increased confidence and self-efficacy. Such programs need to be designed with equity in mind – but can also benefit from inclusion of all students in a grade level to reduce any negative stigma and ensure broader organizational commitment (Robinson et al., 2021).
Much more can be done to tilt our education systems toward greater equity post-COVID. We need our education leaders to plan beyond a return to the normal in September 2021. Promising strategies include: starting where kids are, rather than where they are supposed to be; leveraging the engagement of parents and communities; and providing new opportunities for kids to get up to grade level. Each of these holds a key to a successful return to school for Canadian students, regardless of social advantage.
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