KITCHENER, Ont.—Grade 13 could be making a comeback, for a limited time.

Students who feel the need to “catch up” after missing many months of in-class learning throughout the pandemic would be able to opt for an extra final year of high school under a $295-million plan unveiled Friday by Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca in the June 2 election campaign.

“Many of the older students aren’t ready for college or university,” he said in a statement.

“Giving those kids the choice of attending Grade 13 will make sure they’re prepared to take the next big steps in their lives.”

Del Duca said he would offer Grade 13 for four years to help kids who attended secondary school during the COVID-19 years get up to speed — and “re-evaluate” the merits of continuing the optional extra year at that time.

Ontario students endured the longest periods of online-only classes in North America because of strict public health measures here.

In fact, teens finishing Grade 11 across the province next month have not yet had a full, normal year of high school.

After many years of debate, Ontario ended a fifth year of high school in 2003 because it was the only jurisdiction in North America providing one, although thousands of students now do “victory laps” to improve their marks or take extra courses.

A number of studies have pointed to the phenomenon of “learning loss” in the pandemic, with the Toronto District School Board, for example, finding sharp drops in reading levels. In February, Education Minister Stephen Lecce earmarked an extra $35 million for student supports.

Del Duca referred to the challenges faced by his own two girls, one in elementary school, the other now in high school, since the pandemic began in March 2020.

“I have watched with pain as our daughters struggled with remote learning and lockdowns that set them back both academically and socially.”

A return to Grade 13 would mark one of the biggest changes to the school system in two decades and is one of several new planks in the Liberal education platform released Friday.

It includes hiring 1,000 more mental health professionals for students and staff, hiring another 5,000 special education workers to reduce wait times for students with autism, expanding the student nutrition program to provide free “Ontario-grown” breakfasts to kids who need them, and replacing EQAO testing with a new assessment strategy.

“We will work with parents, teachers and education experts to develop it,” a Liberal source told the Star.

Del Duca has already proposed building 200 new schools and repairing or upgrading 4,500 others and a firm cap of 20 students per class in all grades, a move that would require the hiring of 10,000 more teachers but has raised concerns about more split-grade classes and whether enough educators can be found in the current shortage.

He said the $10 billion to be saved by killing Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford’s plan to build Highway 413 and the Bradford Bypass off Highway 400 would go toward improving public education.

Under the Grade 13 proposal, school boards would get full funding for every student and the province would “pause” the current policy of reducing funding for students taking a “victory lap” after earning the 34 credits now required for graduation.

New courses for Grade 13 would include personal finances, civics, mental health and well-being.

Concerns about learning loss in the pandemic are widespread among educators, who worry about students who did not log on regularly for remote learning, did not have reliable internet, a quiet place to study or a parent at home to help.

The end of a fifth grade in high school created a spike in enrolments colleges and universities, a phenomenon known as the “double cohort” that forced post-secondary schools to add capacity as students from both Grades 12 and 13 were hitting campuses at the same time.

With files from Kristin Rushowy

Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1