Kindergarten teacher Amanda Ricketts-Fredrick worries some of her students won’t be ready for Grade 1.
By June, many in senior kindergarten know letter sounds, are starting to read, describe their emotions and play well with others.
But this year, that’s not the case. That’s because so much time was spent teaching them basic social and daily living skills — how to talk to other kids, put on their coat, climb stairs — essentials they had missed out on during the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns.
“The biggest thing we’re seeing in the classroom is lack of social dynamics,” said Ricketts-Fredrick. “Social and emotional skills — they don’t have them.”
Kindies aren’t alone. As the academic year comes to an end next week with a renewed sense of normalcy, it may feel like the disruptions of two-and-a-half years of pandemic learning are over. But many students — especially in kindergarten but all the way to Grade 12 — are behind with remote learning, irregular semesters and COVID restrictions to blame.
The Toronto District School Board — the country’s largest — is so worried about its youngest students that it is making plans for how to best help kids coming into kindergarten this fall, given COVID forced such unusual, isolating situations on families.
“We welcome students who’ve had a variety of experiences prior to their formal entry into kindergarten each and every year … but we recognize the one thing children have in common entering school in September of 2022 is they have spent about half of their lives living through a pandemic — and we’ve never encountered that,” said Director of Education Colleen Russell-Rawlins.
Although spending time with family “is positive for the vast majority of students because of the social-emotional development, secure attachment, sense of security, love and belonging … some of the challenges for some students will be the limited social interactions outside their family setting.”
Without school to attend in-person, or play dates with friends, kids missed out on games and co-operative learning. Because of reduced access to libraries, during repeated shutdowns — Ontario students were out of class and learning online more than any in North America and most of Europe — some children didn’t have access to books to read or to be read to.
“We also know that some of the health and safety restrictions, which have been necessary — such as physical distancing and masking — have had some unintended consequences” because they distort what kids see and hear, impacting oral language development of words and sounds and could hinder kids’ ability to read facial expressions to interpret feelings or meaning, added Russell-Rawlins.
“Our goal is that by the time one of our students who is entering junior kindergarten is in Grade 3 or Grade 4, that we won’t be able to differentiate the life experiences that they’ve had because of the pandemic — that they will just seem to us like any other group of grades of students … We really want to mitigate any of the negative impacts on our students as a result of the pandemic.”
Wilfrid Laurier University professor and researcher Kelly Gallagher-Mackay said it is difficult to measure learning loss because “we don’t have public data on how Ontario students are doing, so we are a lot more in the dark.”
That’s problematic because “the risk with educational issues is that they can multiply if they’re not addressed,” she said. Other concerns are if kids’ confidence or sense of preparedness have taken a hit, they may be more inclined to opt for programs they feel are easier, rather than more challenging ones that down the line provide more post-secondary opportunities.
Studies in the United States and Britain show the longer kids were in remote learning, the worse they fared. That’s particularly worrying in Ontario, she added, because kids lost out on about 27 weeks or more of in-person learning since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
Standardized tracking in the U.S. found lower levels of achievement, with younger children hit the hardest. Graduation rates dropped and fewer kids were pursuing post-secondary studies.
Based on grades alone, marks held steady or even went up during the pandemic for some Ontario students. However, when learning moved online, teachers changed how they evaluated and assessed students, often with greater flexibility and compassion. Most students haven’t written final exams for more than two years, and policies were implemented to protect grades.
This month, Toronto’s public school board published its annual report on early literacy that shows the proportion of Grade 1 and 3 students reading, writing and communicating orally at the provincial standard (a B- grade and above) was slightly higher than in 2018-19, though lower-income students were less likely to meet it. The only exception was Grade 1 reading, which dropped a percentage point.
Other TDSB data on Grade 1 kids and reading show that compared with 2018-19, those learning in-person in 2020-21 were three percentage points behind, while those in virtual schooling were nine percentage points behind. The board is tracking student well-being and achievement, as part of its COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Plan, to identify groups most impacted and where interventions are needed.
For its part, Ontario’s Ministry of Education has provided funding for expanded summer school, free, small-group tutoring during and after school, on weekends and in the summer, as well as programs focusing on mental health.
It has also given school boards money to hire an additional 3,000 staff, temporarily, which is part of an extra $534 million in funding to address COVID concerns.
The Toronto Catholic District School Board is also creating an early literacy intervention strategy to address any literacy and numeracy gaps caused by the pandemic, said Shazia Vlahos, chief of communications and government relations.
As well, staff are in the process of gathering data from schools “to assess areas that may need additional supports to assist students dealing with learning loss” at any level because of the pandemic, she added.
“These metrics include qualitative data which will be shared with staff to design customized year-end review exercises,” she said. “We will also be using data from final report cards, EQAO (standardized testing) results, as well as recent survey/census information that was gathered from students and families to inform short-term planning and strategic interventions, if needed.”
Ricketts-Fredrick, a teacher at the kindergarten-only Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy in Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood, found some students lacked vocabulary, social skills or confidence to try new things or join activities. They didn’t know how to approach a kid to play with them, or how to take turns. They didn’t know how to put on their shoes, or open their lunch box. A few even had difficulty climbing stairs because they live in highrise apartment buildings with elevators and had spent much of the pandemic at home.
“We literally have spent this year going back to those independent skills,” she said.
Russell-Rawlins said, ideally, the TDSB would like to have an early childhood educator in every kindergarten classroom working alongside the teacher. Currently, a handful of classrooms don’t because of small numbers.
Lilia Spagnuolo’s son Anthony, 3, is starting junior kindergarten in the fall and she fears he’s lacking many skills. Because she’s a stay-at-home mom, Anthony didn’t attend daycare, and the pandemic limited contact with friends, family and other children.
“He’s lagging behind in every possible area,” she said, adding they recently attended a ‘welcome to kindergarten’ event at Toronto’s St. André Catholic School where he refused to speak.
“I’m superstressed, and I can see he is too,” she said, describing the difference between his preparedness with daughter Marianna’s, a few years ago, like night and day.
Even for students a few years older, teachers noticed gaps in reading, writing and math.
Grade 3 teacher Kim Sas, with the Halton Catholic District School Board, said about seven of her 19 students were reading at a Grade 1 or 2 level, while in previous years there would have been just two or three.
And, she added, “it wasn’t just how many of them were lower … but how much lower.”
Much of the year was spent reminding kids about basic punctuation and to start sentences with uppercase letters — by Grade 3, most would have figured this out. And basic math with speed and accuracy was “very difficult.” Normally, kids know their doubles — four plus four is eight — but many were still using their fingers to count.
Although in-person learning wasn’t significantly disrupted this academic year — after winter break students learned remotely until Jan. 17 — COVID-related restrictions in schools created challenges. Before the pandemic, Sas would help a small group of kids with reading, but physical distancing rules meant she could no longer do that.
So she worked individually with masked students, two metres apart, wearing goggles, a mask and a face shield, which made it tough to hear. When restrictions lifted March 21, being able to do group was “wonderful,” even if it came with delighted children who couldn’t stop chatting.
Kids have made strides, she said, adding those who were initially struggling with reading are a grade level higher. But she’s also lowered expectations. In the past, when marking a written piece, she’d look at ideas, connecting words and punctuation.
“Now, you’re kind of picking and choosing so that they can be more successful because it’s overwhelming for them.”
Even in high school, teachers have been making accommodations because “if everything about education has been different the last two years, there’s no way that the learning could be the same,” said Mississauga teacher Paula Diamond.
Students moved between in-person and online classes, and some could watch a live class, but from home. Schools also had to adopt modified schedules, including quadmesters (two, 150-minute classes a day).
Diamond said after so much virtual learning last year, students had a tough time recalling information from previous courses, which she attributes to having been taken during the quadmester at a “high speed that they didn’t learn it deeply enough.”
In the past, teens would hand in an assignment and she’d mark it. This year, she provided feedback on a first draft, and they’d rewrite and resubmit it. She gave kids multiple chances to improve work and repeatedly asked for assignments.
“It takes more and more time for them to be able to produce something that is at grade level. It requires a lot more support,” said the English teacher with Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board. “We’re doing everything we can to make kids successful because everybody involved has empathy.”
Throughout the pandemic, the traditional final exam has largely been cancelled, with many students marked on culminating tasks. And because the hybrid model made it tough to ensure no one at home was cheating, some teachers shied away from tests. There were more projects, assignments, essays and presentations, which students score better on.
Grade 12 Toronto student Evan Woo, 18, who attends Earl Haig Secondary School, said he put a lot of extra pressure on himself to maintain high marks because he figured universities would hike admission requirements. It paid off. He’s going to Western University with an advanced entry opportunity into Ivey Business School. But he’s “nervous” he hasn’t developed good study habits that will prepare him for post-secondary exams — this year, he had lots of quizzes with cheat sheets and open-book tests.
Similarly, Stephanie De Castro, 17, in Grade 11 at Senator O’Connor College School in Toronto, said after returning to a regular second semester, she realized how much was missed during the first half of the year. Courses felt rushed, as if she couldn’t digest all the content — and De Castro worries that will hurt her next year.
“Right now teachers are OK with late assignments and I think I’ve been taking advantage of that,” said De Castro, who hopes teachers revert to how they assessed students pre-COVID. “It would force the students to work harder, learn harder, and in the end that’s good for a lot of students.”
Science teacher Usha KelleyMaharaj, who works at York Memorial Collegiate Institute in Toronto, said her students are doing well academically, but notices gaps in literacy and numeracy. The support she needs to provide as they problem-solve and accomplish tasks — called scaffolding — has “increased dramatically.” Scaffolding is key, she said, adding, “We do not want our standards to drop and we don’t want the learning expectations to drop.”
Leela Acharya, a guidance counsellor and teacher at Bloor Collegiate Institute in Toronto, said high-achieving students have thrived throughout the pandemic, and those who’ve historically struggled had a tough time. For the first time in her 17-year career, she’s seeing teens really struggle to graduate this year — in part because they’ve been learning virtually or working part-time jobs to support families financially impacted by COVID.
Mississauga teen Kaden Johnson was in Grade 9 when the pandemic hit and hasn’t been back to Applewood Heights Secondary School since because he’s been learning remotely. He said the move online hurt him academically and socially.
“If you’re not learning as effectively as you should be, which was the situation with me, then that’s going to reflect on your marks,” said the Grade 11 student, who plans on attending in-person for Grade 12.
Because of the time spent online, Johnson, 16, said “I do feel like I’ll be starting a little bit behind the starting line.”
But he knows he won’t be alone. Many students, he said, are “trying to pick up the pieces … (while) trying to move forward at the same time.”
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy