COVID-linked disruptions have affected learning, but school systems aren’t tracking student progress or how online schooling works.

The United Nations Secretary General has decried effects of the pandemic as a “generational catastrophe” in education. It’s clear, in the middle of the panic, politics and near-chaos of returning to school in the shadow of COVID-19, there are serious reasons to worry about the future of public education and especially today’s students.

While schools are, for now, re-opening in Canada, the shape of schooling is undergoing fundamental change, especially in Ontario and Alberta, where whole school systems are creating an option of full-time online learning. In Ontario, there are some school boards where half the students are pursuing their studies online from home.

Alberta, too, has given families the option of online schooling with significant take-up in Calgary and Edmonton. Beyond those two provinces, schools are facing intermittent closures due to outbreaks, and all provinces face the risk of further lockdowns requiring remote learning to be an important back-up plan.

It is likely these disruptions will produce short- and long-term impacts on student learning and their pathways into post-secondary education and employment. All evidence suggests that those with low skills, and those who do not graduate, face poor social, civic and health outcomes, and even greater struggles with the jobs and skills of the future. In the longer-term, there is a real possibility that some of the emergency changes to educational delivery may be permanent.

In Canada, working with public health, there have been steps taken to share information about the disease status of students and staff in the return to school. But right now, what is missing is data about whether and what students are learning, and how this crisis is affecting their ability to step into adulthood.

In the midst of a huge shift to online education in two of Canada’s largest provinces, information is needed to understand students’ participation in at-home instruction and how they are spending their time. We need to understand their challenges and what supports work to meet these challenges. We need a plan to track learning and social-emotional outcomes for online-only students relative to those attending in-person and relative to pre-pandemic norms.

Data about student learning is particularly urgent as the limited pre-pandemic research comparing online and in-person schooling in K-12 suggests that online schooling works worst for disadvantaged students, and analyses of data from Toronto and the wider region suggests it is exactly those students who are more likely to opt for online.

We expect that there may be changes to schooling depending on COVID numbers. But are changes on the horizon if it turns out large numbers of students aren’t learning? Under the status quo, provincial governments are avoiding this question by failing to produce information on this key issue.

Why do we need to know?

When parents weigh risks and benefits of sending a child back to school, they should be informed if most children in online learning are in danger of falling behind. In high school, parents have the chance to change their decisions at different points in the year. School boards, already under incredible administrative strain as they reinvent educational delivery to respond to the health crisis, need support to provide this critical information.

At a minimum, we should be provided information for online, in-person and blended learning situations:

  • How are students doing on core subject areas like literacy and numeracy?
  • How many students are on track for graduation, based on known success indicators like Grade 9 credit accumulation?
  • How many older students came back this fall after schools were shuttered last year, and how many applied for post-secondary?
  • How much instructional time are students getting? Attendance is an important, policy-sensitive predictor of academic success.
  • Are students getting the Special Education supports they are entitled to regardless of whether they are learning online or in-person?

Finding that significant numbers of students are being left behind under the current models of learning should raise major alarm bells. Given urgent concerns about equity, this information should be broken down by race, Indigenous status, disability and family income.

The first large-scale data on the impact of the spring shut-down, from Belgium, documented huge, and very unequal, losses when schools closed with online support last spring.

While testing all students is perhaps counterproductive, surely rapid, transparent and benchmarked assessments on student learning and well-being should be underway across representative groups. There are plenty of examples of government policy being driven by assessments of representative samples of the population. For example, the OECD’s highly influential Program of International Student Assessment – based on samples – has had huge impact in its comparison of the outcomes of different national education systems.

From a policy perspective, it appears that the diverse pandemic adaptation models developed across Canada try to balance cost, safety and feasibility. Surely learning should also count in making the political and pragmatic calculus of decision-making around COVID schooling.

Comparable information, ideally from across Canada, would allow policy-makers to learn from each other’s experience through the “natural experiments”’ being conducted this fall. In Ontario and Alberta, the government offered families “choices” between online and virtual learning. In Quebec, students were required to attend in-person school unless they could get a medical exemption. Were there marked differences in achievement and equity between the provinces?

Even within one province, there is an important opportunity to compare how demographically similar students of all ages learn in the online versus in-person school context, and across different models of online learning (for example where one teacher teaches both in-person and online classes versus dedicated virtual schools).

This information should also provide a necessary stimulus for advocacy and programming to support students, especially those who are having the greatest struggles, to make up for lost time and to remain engaged in education. Documented learning loss may heighten the urgency of public investment in this space and the urgency of knowing what interventions work, where, and for whom to improve a range of social and academic outcomes.

In the United Kingdom, as part of COVID relief, the government pledged £1 billion to schools to provide tutoring for those who can’t afford it. There are evidence-based strategies being deployed across the United States support schools and families in addressing chronic absenteeism.

Can after-school programs or small outdoor playgroups help mitigate potential losses, especially for younger children whose play-based curriculum may be seriously compromised by online delivery? If statistics show students are not faring well in an online learning environment, we also need additional research to understand what it will take for parents to feel comfortable getting kids back to school.

In the midst of a health crisis we must know enough to prevent or mitigate the risk of a learning crisis. What happens now matters for the lives of the children in school today, and for all our futures.

Photo: Shutterstock.com, by fizkes