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Archive for the ‘Pandemic Education’ Category

PandemicImpactClass

School’s out and the first reliable reports on pandemic learning loss are appearing in the United States and, far more slowly, from province-to-province across Canada. In some school systems, education leaders and regional superintendents are breathing a sigh of relief and far too many are acting like the disruptions of two-and-a-half years of pandemic learning are over. But the first wave of student assessment scores reveals many students — especially from kindergarten to Grade 6, but all the way to Grade 12 — are behind with school closures, remote learning, and irregular school schedules to blame.

During the COVID-19 pandemic America’s schoolchildren lost out on from 16 to 70 weeks in the classroom. Most pupils received some form of virtual schooling which varied greatly in quality and quantity. While many parents recognized the risk to health posed by keeping schools open, they—and teachers—were concerned that lessons taken at the kitchen table were less effective than those in a classroom. Weathering one wave after another of the pandemic, and particularly Omicron, led to repeated schedule disruptions and reversions to remote/home learning. Early student test results show just how much childrens’ education has suffered during the pandemic.

            Standardized student assessment tracking in the U.S. was far more extensive during the pandemic and the Brookings Institution has reported lower levels of achievement, with younger children hit the hardest. Graduation rates dropped and fewer kids were pursuing post-secondary studies. It’s doubly difficult to identify and assess learning loss in Canada because our education authorities simply suspended provincial testing and, in many cases, final examinations.

Wilfrid Laurier University professor and researcher Kelly Gallagher-Mackay pinpointed the nub of the problem in Ontario and elsewhere: “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 told The Toronto Star. It also has compounded effects: if students’ 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.

Canada’s largest school district, Toronto District School Board (TDSB), produced Grade 1 Reading data that raised some alarms. TDSB data from 2020-21 for in-person schooling compared with 2018-19, reported students were 3 percentage points behind, while those in virtual schooling were 9 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

An authoritative November 2021 American study of pandemic education impact, produced by Clare Halloran and a research team for the National Bureau of Educational Research, demonstrated how the shift in schooling mode to home learning adversely affected test scores tracked over 2020-21 across 12 different U.S. states. Student pass rates declined compared to prior years and that these declines were larger in districts with less in-person instruction. Passing rates in math declined by 14.2 percentage points on average, but somewhat less (10.1 percentage points smaller) for districts fully in-person. Reported losses in English language arts scores were smaller, but were significantly larger in districts with larger populations of disadvantaged students who were Black, Hispanic or eligible for free and reduced-price lunch programs.

Studies in Britain also show that the longer kids were in remote learning, the worse they fared. That’s particularly worrying in Canadian provinces like Ontario, where students lost out on about 27 weeks or more of in-person learning from March 2020 to the end of June 2022. Judging from the June 2021 Ontario Science Table study, Canadian provinces lost more days, averaging about 20 weeks, than similar jurisdictions in the U.S., U.K. or the European Union.

            The Canadian province of Nova Scotia is, as usual, a reliable bell-weather for K-12 education. Province-wide assessment was suspended completely in 2020-21 and then reinstituted in 2021-22.  The latest test results were embargoed until the last week of school in June 2022, posted on an obscure Nova Scotia Education website under PLANS, then released without any notice or comment. Putting them out at the tail end of the year all but guarantees that they escape public notice.

            Studying the latest installment of Nova Scotia provincial student results, covering the 2018-19 to 2021-22 period, it is easy to see why they are buried on an obscure public website.  Nothing was reported covering Grade 3, the critical first step in monitoring the acquisition of student competencies in reading, writing and mathematics. Instead, the province released Grade 6 results showing, as predicted, a pronounced achievement decline, most acute in mathematics and writing, but also affecting reading competencies and comprehension. 

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            What are education authorities attempting to hide?  Grade 6 Mathematics results (2021-22) dropped to 64% achieving expectations, down 6 % from before the pandemic. In the case of Grade 6 Reading, some 71% of students met the standard, down 4% since 2018-19. Going back ten years to 2012-13, the achievement slide is actually gradual and continuing, perhaps worsened by some 22 weeks of COVID-related school closures from March 2020 to June of 2021.

From school district to district, student achievement in 2021-22 was also highly irregular, ranging in Grade 6 Mathematics from Halifax RCE (67%, down 6%) to TriCounty RCE (50%, down 14%). In Grade 6 Reading, the comparable figures were Halifax RCE (74%, down 3%) to TriCounty RCE (61%, down 6 %).

Some marked progress has been made in addressing the problem of underperformance among marginalized and racialized students. In Grade 6 Mathematics, for example, African Nova Scotian students’ scores have risen from 36% (2013-14) to 55% (2016-17) and then held firm at 54% (2019-20) before the pandemic.  For Indigenous students, Grade 6 Reading has risen from 64% (2013-14) to 65% (2016-17) and then reached 74% (2019-20), just 2% below the provincial mean score. 

            The declines in Grade 6 Mathematics and Reading in Nova Scotia post-pandemic are perhaps predictable. What is more concerning is the longer-term trend toward an “achievement slide,’ revealed starkly on publicly- reported provincial assessment results over the past decade. Grade 6 Mathematics scores, for example, have plummeted from 73% (2012-13) to 71% (2018-19) to 64% (2021-22), a drop of 9 points.  In Grade 6 Reading, the slide is gentler from 76% (2012-13) to 74% (2018-19) to 71% (2021-22).  In short, somewhere between one-quarter to one-third of all students are not functionally literate or numerate at the end of elementary school.

One of Canada’s leading international education experts, Paul Cappon, warned ten years ago that Canada was becoming “a school that does not issue report cards.”  Suspending student assessment during the pandemic, then re-instating tests on a limited basis is bad enough.  Holding-off on releasing student results until everyone is on the way out for the summer holidays suggests that Dr. Cappon’s prophecy has come to pass, even after the biggest educational disruption in our lifetime.

What was the full extent of the learning loss experienced by K-12 students over the past two-and-a-half years? How reliable are the initial assessments coming out of the United States, the UK, and the European Union states?  Why is it next-to-impossible to assess the pandemic impact on Canadian students?  By limiting student assessment, rationing the results, then issuing partial sets of results are Canadian school authorities cushioning the blow or merely deferring the day of reckoning?  

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LearningLoss

Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the Canadian K-12 education system is gradually regaining its consciousness after multiple shocks.  Three years ago, Ontario education occupied a bubble and the architects of its current school system were fond of routinely referring Ontario as “the learning province” with  a “world class system.”  Prominent Canadian school promoters who saw the COVID-19 education crisis as a golden opportunity to “build back better” with a focus on enhancing social and emotional learning are now beginning to confront the post-pandemic realities.

Now an Ontario education research report produced in April 2022 has dared to break with the official line.  “CANADA HAS BEEN A LAGGARD ON EDUCATIONAL RECOVERY” it proclaimed – and in capital letters. That report on “Educational Recovery” produced by the Laurier University Centre for Leading Research in Education spearheaded by Dr. Kelly Gallagher-Mackay confirmed what international education researchers, most notably Western University’s Dr. Prachi Srivastava, have known for some time. Venturing outside the Ontario-centric education world it’s clear that “other countries have invested far more than Canada in learning recovery and started sooner.”

Most of what Canadian educators know about COVID-19 school disruptions and “learning loss” come from evidence-based data research originating the United States, Britain, and the EU. So, it’s no surprise that the United States and the United Kingdom are way ahead of us in producing learning recovery strategies and programs.  The US has already allocated $2741/student (in Canadian dollars) and the UK $531/student, according to Britain’s Educational Policy Institute. Britain made its initial commitment in September 2020 and funding for learning recovery programs was flowing in the US by January 2021.  In comparison, Ontario has only committed $72/student divided up into support for learning recovery, special education and mental health.

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The student data deficit was revealed for all to see in February 2022 in a very useful People for Education  pan-Canadian scan of Canadian K-12 COVID-related education plans conducted after two years of disrupted schooling. While all provinces and territories were found to have public health safety strategies for schools, few were engaged in “data collection” or had   anything approaching a vision or plan to manage, assess or respond to learning loss or the psych-social impact of mass school closures. None had allocated sufficient funding to prepare for post-pandemic recovery.

Why has Canada lagged behind in recognizing learning loss and getting its policy response act together? That’s not even a question raised in the report. The reason is self-evident to those familiar with Ontario’s educational gatekeepers, recognized stakeholders and researchers in that orbit: Most of the key education influencers and interest groups, particularly in Ontario, exhibit “student assessment aversion” and have resisted, for decades, system-wide student assessment aimed at monitoring and addressing learning gaps and shortfalls student achievement.  In normal times, it  passed unnoticed; but not now when we are facing a formidable learning recovery mission.

The Laurier University report is a credible piece of research, but it, too, came wrapped in what amounted to a politically-driven declaration. That “If I had 1.08 billion dollars” media release has to be one of the dumbest ever to accompany an education research report. Instead of addressing the absence of testing, data-gathering, and negligence in preparing recovery plans, it captured the collective “wish-list” funding appeals of the 34 system insiders assembled by Toronto-based People for Education as part of the background research.

Most of the “education leaders” invited to the January 2022 pre-report symposium were invited to “pitch interventions or approaches” – an open invitation to present familiar funding appeals and pet projects. The result was predictable – a panoply of the usual remedies, including more funding for student well-being, learning supports, supply teachers, psycho-social specialists, and equity initiatives. Almost crowded out on that list was the point of the whole exercise – launching “a renewed approach to educational data and evidence.”

The section of the report focusing on addressing the student data deficit is rife with contradiction. While there’s acknowledgement that “educational data” is now critical to addressing COVID-19 learning impacts, the proposed action plan is fuzzy and contradictory.  Collecting data may be desirable, but there was no consensus on which data or for what purpose. The University of Waterloo research of Scott Leatherdale is trotted out because his COMPASS study is “population-level, longitudinal data” youth public health study is conducted at a distance from the system.

What’s missing from the report is any reference whatsoever to the relevant research conducted on “learning loss” produced by OISE researcher Scott Davies and Janice Aurini, a colleague of Professor Leatherdale. When it comes to provincial testing, the report notes that some participants called for a “pause” or complete halt to the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) tests administered in grades 3, 6 and 9 in Ontario. That’s far from an endorsement of the one Ontario student assessment program capable of filling the data deficit identified as a critical policy issue.

Why is student assessment across the system still a bugaboo two years into an educational crisis with recognized adverse impacts upon student learning?  Is it a matter of ideologues opposed to provincial testing refusing to recognize the new realities? If “data collection” and “learning loss” is such a problem, can it be addressed without reinstituting provincial testing? Or is this essentially a smokescreen to stave off a day of reckoning when we actually see what COVID-19 school disruptions have done to the pandemic generation of students?

 

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MasksSchoolsBBC

The latest COVID-19 variant is “spreading like wildfire” in and around schools by all accounts. With daily case counts reaching 100,000 in Ontario, teachers and parents, with the support of Toronto infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch, are speaking out demanding that mask mandates be re-instated and similar movements are afoot in New Brunswick and all other jurisdictions without such mandates.

“COVID-19 is not over” is the rallying cry as teachers and education workers report record student and staff absenteeism – and are now openly challenging public health authorities to respond to mushrooming case counts.  Masking up in schools has become a strange kind of proxy for public trust in medical science and our public health officials. That’s the underlying but fundamental public policy issue, two years into the never-ending pandemic.

The counsel of chief medical officers of health, once considered unbiased, Manitoba physician Jillian Horton aptly pointed out, is now  being challenged as simply parroting the latest gyrations of politicians.  It hasn’t helped that the CMOHs, in Ontario and elsewhere, went relatively quiet over the past month.

One of the clearest statements came from the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA).  The province’s third largest teachers’ union appealed to the province on April 8, 2022 to undo the decision to end masking in all schools on March 21 because teacher and student absences due to COVID-19 are causing “whiplash disruptions to the learning environment.”

Surging case counts and high absenteeism are causing havoc in  many school districts, including the London-based Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) and in Scarborough, where one Catholic elementary school of 540 students averaged over 100 student absences a day last week. Similar absentee rates have been registered in mask-mandate-free New Brunswick schools

Lifting mandates with students and staff returning from March break has precipitated a raging controversy, especially in New Brunswick. With the post-March break COVID-19 surge breaking out, the latest Omicron BA.2 variant running rampant and restrictions lifting, Education Minister Dominic Cardy balked at reinstituting masks in schools. “Leave it up to the experts” was his repeated response.

Concerned parents and worried teachers, seeing first-hand evidence of mounting case counts, organized a Change.org petition in early March and began speaking-out, demanding the return of masks and fuller disclosure of actual case counts and rates of absenteeism. The “Protect our Province” (PoP) petition for masks in schools appeared in early March and immediately attracted some 700 signatures Post-March break fears drove the number of signatories up to 1,300 by March 17 and stood at 1,514 in early April.

In the first week of April, a group of 19 pediatricians answered the Minister’s call for expert opinion. “We do not believe we are out of the woods yet with the COVID-19 pandemic,” they wrote in an open letter to Minister Cardy, Premier Blaine Higgs, Chief Public Health Officer Jennifer Russell, and Health Minister Dorothy Shephard.

New Brunswick’ pediatricians confirmed that COVID-19 was an airborne virus, masking and vaccinations were the best protections against infection, and it was time to bring back masking for the rest of the school year. That was to no avail because Minister Cardy kept insisting it was up to public health and Dr. Russell weighed-in holding firm on resisting a mask mandate in schools.

While New Brunswick politicians passed the ‘hot potato’ back and forth, COVID-19 case counts were ripping through the whole Atlantic region. At the time Atlantic Canada had the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in Canada.

On April 2, the Canada Health Agency reported that Prince Edward Island ranked first among the provinces and territories with 350.6 daily cases per week in the final week of March, registering 2,216.6 average daily cases per million.  New Brunswick ranked fifth with 567.0 average daily cases per million, a higher rate of infection than Quebec and Ontario.

When the case counts were released, New Brunswick was also an outlier. Students in Nova Scotia were still required to wear masks and New Brunswick was more restrictive in providing access to testing. In N.B., PCR testing was only available to those over 50-years-of-age, or under two years, or those deemed to be vulnerable or at higher risk.

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Entering our third year of the pandemic, provincial public health officers are committed to keeping schools open for the mental health and well-being of children, but, beyond that, they are all over the map, especially on disclosure of case counts, access to testing, and precautionary measures.

Requiring masks to be worn indoors in schools is a perfect example. On the same day that Prince Edward Island’s medical officer Heather Morrison announced masking in P.E.I. schools would continue, her New Brunswick counterpart Dr. Russell held a media briefing to announce the opposite. While strongly encouraging students and staff to mask-up on their own, Russell claimed that “vaccination is actually more important” at this point in the pandemic.

Navigating our way out of the pandemic is proving to be an uncertain journey full of contradictions.  Following the wisdom of the “experts” in government appears to mean different things from one province to another. It’s made more perplexing when leading pediatricians, most notably Dr. Andrew Lynk and his team at Halifax’s IWK Children’s Hospital, change their positions in response to surges in infections affecting children. That sounds like following the science.

If determining whether mask mandates are necessary is truly based upon medical science evidence-based criteria, one might expect more consistency right now.  What is a medical necessity for some, is a restriction on freedom for others.  When public health experts disagree, someone has to make a decision. Intervening to settle the matter opens the door to further criticism from skeptics hyper-sensitive to any sign of the politicization public health decisions.

What has happened to public trust in our provincial public health officers? With the latest COVID-19 variant ripping through schools and communities, why is there resistance to reinstituting mask mandates in schools?  Is the whole question of mask mandates become a proxy for trust in public health authorities?

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COVID19LearningLoss

The COVID-19 pandemic shock knocked out Canada’s provincial school systems and we are now seeing the residual effects. Speaking recently on TVO Ontario’s The Agenda, Western University education professor Prachi Srivastava  cut through the usual edu-babble: “I’m shocked at the lack of planning, at the lack of forward planning in the face of what is quite a predictable outcome,” referring to the short and long-term consequences of mass school closures.

When Srivastava speaks, education authorities should be listening and heeding her advice. She’s one of the few Canadian education researchers attuned to global education development and co-lead author of the June 2021 Ontario Science Table brief on the impact of educational disruption not only in Ontario but from province-to-province in Canada. Back in July 2021, she and the research team issued a follow-up report confirming the cumulative learning loss and social harms inflicted since March 2020 and recommending that, barring catastrophic circumstances, schools should remain open for in-person learning for the foreseeable future.

A pan-Canadian scan of Canadian K-12 COVID-related education plans conducted by Toronto-based People for Education and released in early February, after two years of disrupted schooling, came up virtually empty.  While all provinces and territories have public health safety strategies for schools, few have anything approaching a vision or plan to manage, assess or respond to learning loss or the psych-social impact of mass school closures and none have allocated sufficient funding to prepare for post-pandemic recovery.

A near total lack of student data is seriously hampering our capacity to assess how the pandemic has affected student learning over the past two years.  “One of the problems we have,” Srivastava told the London Free Press, “is that there is no baseline data.”  That is confirmed, in spades, in the recent People for Education report. Only four of our 10 provinces and territories, British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, are engaged (even in the 2021-22 school year) in any form of data collection, and it’s irregular at best.

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As a G7 country, Canada is purportedly one of the seven most highly industrialized and relatively well-resourced liberal democracies on the planet, and it has, relatively speaking, one of the smallest cohorts of children, some 5.1 million, in elementary and secondary school. With all those resources and one of the most extensive educational bureaucracies in the world, it’s fair to ask why our school systems came up short during the pandemic.

Four mass school closings in Ontario have cost K-12 students some 29 weeks of schooling since March 2020, roughly double the average lost time, 14 to 16 weeks, across all advanced industrial societies. While Ontario leads in weeks claimed by school closures, most other provinces are close behind, with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, for example, checking-in at 20 to 22 weeks of disrupted instructional time. In the case of Nova Scotia, it’s compounded by the fact that 4 to 6 additional days have been lost to storm day closures where teachers are not required to provide alternative instruction.

Suspending or curtailing system-wide student assessments has compounded the problem. With Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) testing cancelled during the pandemic, there was no way to assess how that province’s two million students were performing or whether they were recovering. “My assessment,” Srivastava claims, “is that we could have used the EQAO in a different way. We could have used it to monitor what the baseline was…then we could have rerun the EQAO.”

The Ontario pattern was repeated elsewhere as provinces, one-after-another, abandoned large-scale student assessments and suspended high school examinations. Maintaining consistent and credible benchmark assessments would certainly have made logical sense and left us better prepared to plan for the recovery. While some provinces, including Ontario and Nova Scotia have restored testing in 2021-22, it’s going to be difficult to analyze without consistent baseline data.

School authorities have failed us during the COVID-19 pandemic and it will prove costly for the pandemic generation of children. A child who was in Kindergarten in March 2020, is now in Grade 2 and will be in grade 3 in September 2022, so pandemic closures will have cost them between 10 and 27 weeks of their schooling, Students in Grade 9 when COVID-19 hit will have had their entire high school years disrupted by closures and mostly ineffective online learning experiments.

Repeated pivots to emergency home learning were detrimental to school age children and families, and education was used as a “pandemic control” instrument without sufficient recognition of the academic and social impacts on children and teens. Public policy devolved into complying with public health dictates, and responding – in ad hoc fashion on the fly – to educator and parent concerns, applying band-aid upon band-aid, from social distancing to bubble to HEP filter units, to secure a modicum of consent, several times, to restart in-person school.

Serious research into COVID-19’s impact on student learning is gradually emerging and, given the preoccupations of our education schools, it originates mostly elsewhere.  Studies in the United Kingdom during COVID-19 point to a learning loss of between 2 months and 2 years, depending upon the educational jurisdiction. One of the few Canadian studies, conducted by University of Alberta researcher George Georgiou, found that students in Grades 1 and 2 in Edmonton and Vermillion performed, on average, 8 months to a full year below grade level on reading tasks at the end of the last school year. More recently, a U.S. study, conducted from 2019 to 2022 by Amplify utilizing DIBELs assessments, found that more than I in 3 children from Kindergarten to Grade 3 fell significantly short of their expected reading level without major and systematic interventions.

A more coherent, integrated and responsive pandemic education recovery plan is now a matter of immediate necessity.  At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the key components of such a plan, repeated articulated by Srivastava, me and others, are hiding in plain sight.  Such a comprehensive plan would consist of three main education recovery initiatives:

  • Revamp the entire K-12 curriculum – recognizing that it’s a massive “catch-up operation” in which parts of the curriculum in each year need to be lengthened, some curriculum moved into the next grade, and other parts missed earlier integrated into the current grade.
  • Boost core competencies and skills in reading and numeracy – close the basic skills gap while introducing pro-social skills throughout the curriculum for all children, focusing on the elementary grades.
  • Implement targeted interventions – focusing on schools with the highest number of disruptions and infection rates, or large numbers of students from marginalized communities or special needs students.

Three years ago, Canadian K-12 education occupied a bubble and the architects of the current school system were fond of routinely referring to Ontario as a “world class system.”  When the pandemic hit, prominent Canadian school promoters saw it as a golden opportunity to “build back better” with a focus on enhancing social and emotional learning.  What a difference a Pandemic makes. It’s now a recovery mission and there’s no room for complacency.

Why did Canadian school systems shut down their student assessment programs during the two-year long pandemic?  What explains the lack of preparedness and the inability to respond effectively in overseeing, monitoring, and reporting on student academic progress and well-being? When can Canadian parents and educators expect to see some strategy and plans for learning recovery in the wake of the pandemic? 

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MooreDrKieran

Any hope for a definite end to the protracted COVID-19 Pandemic is gradually disappearing. The latest Omicron surge looks unstoppable in Canada and, in province-after-province, rates of infection and transmission are setting new records. Some solace is provided when we seize upon signs of fewer serious cases requiring lengthy hospitalization and leading to death.

A fundamental psychological shift is underway with profound implications for children, families and schools. “When will the Pandemic end?” is giving way to “How can we learn to live with COVID?” Confronting a rampant Omicron spread, necessity is giving birth to a new line of thinking. Leading global thinktanks were the first to confront “the new normal” and it’s now being embraced by those once thought least likely to change their scripts, Canada’s provincial public health officers.

The shift from big- P “Pandemic” to little-e “endemic” was forecast by health science experts specializing in epidemic diseases and policy wizards commissioned to forecast social trends. A decade ago, medical researcher Sander L Gillman, produced a rather obscure book, Diseases and Diagnoses: the Second Age of Biology (2010), connecting the dots between “Moral Panics and pandemics” and forecasting a global “pandemic killer” potentially worse than the 2009 H1N1 influenza. Four months ago, the American public policy thinktank McKinsey & Company got out front of us by daring to produce a policy research paper with the rather audacious title “How the world can learn to live with COVID-19.”

The Big Shift on COVID-19 has now arrived and is seeping into public discourse. The latest episode of CBC-Radio’s The House (January 8, 2022), hosted by Chris Hall, provided a virtual clinic on the profound re-orientation now underway. The dramatic and uncontainable spread of Omicron in January of 2022 has prompted Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang and a growing group of health experts to change tbeir approach to COVID-19 – and to publicly acknowledge that the populace is going to have to get used to living with the virus. Nowhere is that shift more profound than in our strategy of protecting children and teens in and around K-12 schools.

Nova Scotia’s public health chief, nationally recognized for his ‘tough’ COVID-19 regulations from March 2020 to December 2021, has changed his tune. “We are going to have to…move away [from  eradication], and accept that the virus that causes COVID is going to be around with us,” Dr Strang stated on air. Our new goal, he claimed, should be to “manage” COVID-19 based upon “having good levels immunity from both vaccination and infection…[so] that we no longer have to have these wide restrictive measures and…this huge focus on trying to identify as many cases as possible.”

That’s a seismic shift and Dr. Strang is not alone in changing their whole approach. Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that the goal now is to “slow the spread because it cannot be stopped.”  Dr. Strang’s opposite number in Newfoundland and Labrador Dr Janice Fitzgerald has also come to that conclusion. Health care policy expert Katherine Fierlbeck of Dalhousie University offered a succinct explanation for the change. People eventually “get tired of top-down governance,” she said on CBC’s The House, and to retain public trust requires more transparency, including fuller disclosure of the evidence used in making decisions, its limitations, and the tradeoffs between potential benefits and harms.

Convincing school-age parents and educators in our K-12 schools is proving to be a formidable late-pandemic challenge. Pandemics like COVID-19 tend to evoke and provoke extremes in people, clearly revealed in UBC psychologist Steven Taylor’s October 2019 book, The Psychology of Pandemics. While some people in the broader education community are resilient and cope fairly well with the uncertainties, a significant proportion of others, especially parents of younger school-age children and educators, reflect what Taylor terms the “cave syndrome.” Fearful of COVID-19 spread, they become “excessively anxious” spinning a protective web at home and resistant to sending their kids back to school until absolutely every potential hazard and germ has been removed from that environment.

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Much of that hyper-vigilance is reflected in a new wave of child-protection parent advocacy. Examining the social media traffic produced by one such parent Facebook group, Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, an online community of 22,700 parents and friendly educators, provides plenty of evidence of the mass psychology. That group, coordinated by Stacey Rudderham, and a small group of engaged parents, has led the charge in alerting parents to every potential “exposure site,” identifying all manner of lapses in school-level public health precautions, and signs of potential mass outbreaks.  Public spokespersons for the group  have even challenged the credibility of Dr. Andrew Lynk and his IWK Children’s Hospital team.

The N.S. Facebook group built its membership by creating an early warning system for school-level exposures and attracting hundreds of concerned parents. Over the past 22-months, Rudderham’s group has also supported the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, several times, in pushing for school closures as “circuit breakers.”  Organized pressure group activity, going back to March 2020, helps to explain why Nova Scotia, with comparatively low case counts until recently, has closed schools for a total of 21 weeks, second only to Ontario in North America.

Echoing NSTU president Paul Wozney in early January 2022, the Facebook group “deplored” plans to return to in-person schooling, calling into question the repeated assurances of Dr. Strang and public health officials. That strategy worked, because recently-elected N.S. Premier Tim Houston relented to the public pressure, extending the holiday break, for the second time, and into a third week.  In short, Dr. Strang’s CBC Radio The House comments was actually aimed at changing the channel in his home province.

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Watch for the Big Shift underway in public health policy. When it arrives in your province, you can expect it to mimic the public policy “management” strategy mapped out by global think tanks. You can expect provincial leaders and public health officers to (1) define the new normal; (2) monitor progress through “disease surveillance”; (3) limit illness and death; and (4) slow transmission, responding to identified “hot spots.” 

It will not be easy to convince stressed out parents suffering advanced “COVID-fatigue” that the dreaded COVID is here to stay and we have to learn, somehow, how to cope with the changed landscape, both inside and outside of schools.  It will also take far more than a few media briefings and targeted comments drawing upon the McKinsey & Company playbook on how to “manage” our way from Pandemic to endemic.

*An earlier version appeared in The Hub.com

What are the profound psychological effects of the Pandemic – and does it qualify as a Moral Panic? If the Omicron surge is unstoppable and the virus is present everywhere, are schools (with proper supervision and layers of protection) the safest places for children and teens? Is it a matter of necessity being the source of invention?  Will provincial public health authorities succeed in calming heightened public fears and helping us to adjust to the changed epidemiological conditions?

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HalifaxRegionalSchoolBoardOffice

Today most major Canadian education policy pronouncements come packaged as the latest “investments” in our K-12 schools.  Investing more in introducing new programs, building new schools, and hiring more staff rarely, if ever, attracts close scrutiny. After all, who would ever question spending more on ensuring “the future success of our children.” Some 22 months into the Pandemic, provincial governments are spending like never before to reduce class cohort sizes, hire substitute teachers, health-proof schools, and provide staff with masks and personal protective equipment.

The growth and expansion of “Big Education” (aka “Big Ed”) escapes notice because everyone is totally absorbed in the Moral Panic fed by a persistent infectious disease. Today, and long before the Pandemic, the K-12 school system remains largely invisible and is rarely ever analyzed in terms of its role in sustaining regional economies, providing employment, or seeing the region through the COVID-19 economic downturn. Looking at K-12 education in Atlantic Canada through that lens can be full of surprises. What follows is an expanded version of my recent Insights Podcast with Don Mills produced for Huddle, based in Saint John, NB.

The former Nova Scotia Liberal government of Stephen McNeil and Andrew Rankin, widely regarded for being ‘tight-fisted,’ went to the polls in July 2021 taking pride in “increasing education spending by 30 per cent” to $1.7-billion from 2013 to 2020.   While student enrolments languished, they sought a fresh mandate claiming that they were responsible for hiring “more than 900 new teaching positions and approximately 400 non-teaching positions.” Neither of the opposition parties questioned the figures or asked for evidence that it was improving the quality of education for students.

What upset the provincial PCs and NDP, back in December 2020, was underspending by Education Minister Zach Churchill and his department. With COVID-19 disrupting in-person schooling and interrupting special needs programs, they expressed considerable outrage over the province only spending $11.5-million of the forecasted $15-million earmarked for inclusive education during 2020-21. Even though a thoroughly researched September 2020 academic article, written by University of Ottawa researchers, Jess Whitley and Trista Holloweck, had identified inclusive education implementation confusion and obstacles, no one, again, questioned the cost-effectiveness of the $35-million spent, to date, on the initiative.

Newly-arrived Nova Scotia Auditor General, Kim Adair-MacPherson, learned her first lesson in N.S. education spending practices while investigating the planning and implementation (from April 2017 onward) of the Pre-Primary Program estimated to cost $50-million at the outset. She found the Pre-Primary planning “inadequate” and the roll-out “rushed” to meet an election promise. What was more surprising, to her, was the total lack of financial controls and the department’s inability to provide total costs for the program, estimated to exceed the initial estimates.

Provincial K-12 education is now big business in Canada and especially so in all of the Atlantic provinces. That becomes abundantly clear when you take the time to assess more carefully the total financial impact of education spending, province-to-province, the proportion of the workforce employed in the sector, and its de-facto role in regional economic development.

Total spending on K-12 education in Atlantic Canada has now reached more than $4.3-billion each year, significantly higher than a decade ago. It represents about 64 per cent of all expenditures overall on education (Statistics Canada, 2019) The provincial education budgets, as of 2017-18, were $1.7-billion in Nova Scotia, $1.5-billion in New Brunswick, $878-million in Newfoundland/Labrador, and $278-million in Prince Edward Island.

Spending per student has risen everywhere in the region, except for Newfoundland/Labrador. Biggest spender is New Brunswick at $15,486 per pupil (2018-19), up 16.4 per cent since 2013. Two years ago, Nova Scotia’s per pupil spending stood at $14,910, a five-year increase of 22.5 per cent. The corresponding figures for P.E.I. stood at $14,008, up 14.5 per cent since 2013. Newfoundland and Labrador comes in at $12,878, down 2.7 per cent over the period.

Student enrolment in the Maritimes has risen since 2010-11, totaling 240,371, up some 5.4 per cent. Over that same period, the number of educators has grown faster, up from 19,285 to 21,462 (2019) or 11.3 per cent. It’s quite clear that the totals for “educators” does not include all employees employed in the K-12 education sector. Calculating accurate grand totals for the K-12 sector, in the case of N.S., would involve counting the number of employees represented by five different unions: the NSTU, CUPE, NSGEU, NSUPE, and PEG.

The Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRSB up until 2018) with a budget of $617-million is a case in point. Back in 2016, the school district employed 9,600 personnel, of which 4,255 (or 44.3 per cent) were deployed in schools as teachers, administrators, and support staff.  Today that district employs 11,500 personnel, the majority of whom are not counted as educators.

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Education also operates on a large scale, judging from the relative size of the workforce employed in the K-12 sector in each of the Atlantic provinces. Nova Scotia’s largest employer is the Nova Scotia Health Authority with 23,400 employees in 2021. Second in size is the Department of Education, employing an estimated 17,000, of whom roughly 9,674 are educators. Next in number of employees are Jazz Aviation (4,700), Dalhousie University (3,700), and Emera (2,300).

Education rivals or exceeds health care in New Brunswick, P.E.I., and Newfoundland/Labrador.   In N.B., the Education Department employs some 7,788 educators, second only to Horizon Health and more than the francophone equivalent, Vitalite. The school system is king on the Island, where the Public Schools employ an estimated 4,000, more than Health PEI.  On the Rock, the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District employs over 11,000 staff, second only to the Health and Community Services department.

Big education is here to stay and it’s now a major factor influencing public policy decisions well beyond the sector. The sheer size of the educational workforce goes largely unrecognized, even by provincial auditor-generals, and is rarely factored into regional economic development conversations. Provincial governments in Atlantic Canada, it is now clear, see K-12 education as an integral piece in job creation and protection, especially in COVID-19 times.

Why might public education be considered “big business,” particularly in Atlantic Canada? How dominant is the K-12 system in terms of capital investment, employment, and regional economic development?  Does the system escape public scrutiny because of its largely unacknowledged role in job creation and protection, particularly in challenging economic times? 

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Snowstorms and icy roads signal the return of a hardy perennial — the public education debate over “snow days” and their impact upon students, families and communities. After almost two years of on-and-off COVID-19 school closures, the pandemic may have engineered an online evolution that spells the end of system-wide shutdowns at the first sign of inclement weather. Most, if not all, of the rationalizations for declaring “snow days” have disappeared.

When COVID-19 hit twenty-one months ago, schools closed and school systems pivoted to remote learning, combining traditional homework assignments and online classroom activities. Schools were closed in Canada from 8 weeks (British Columbia)  to 20 weeks (Ontario)  between March 2020 and mid-May 2021, and the gradual adoption of technology allowed students to learn from home.

“Continuous learning” enabled through technology and the internet survived the initial bumps, breakdowns and dislocations, mostly ironed out during the 2020-21 school year.  Successful use and broader public acceptance of e-learning has now prompted many and perhaps a majority of North American school districts to do away with unscheduled days off for a range of natural calamities, including snow storms, hurricanes, flooding, heat waves, and epidemic diseases.

Southwestern Ontario’s largest school district, Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB), responded by announcing the end of snow days. All 160 public schools in the London region, a mixed urban and rural district, are now required to provide online activities for their snowbound students.  That board averaged about 5 to 7 snow day cancellations before the pandemic, roughly half the number claimed each year in rural Nova Scotia and the Maritimes.

The TVDSB’s associate director, Riley Culhane, says students, teachers and parents are ready to provide bridging education in “virtual classrooms.”  Teachers have some discretion in deciding whether to offer “synchronous learning” or simply assign work to be completed at home.  The continued use of e-learning days that were required during the pandemic, Culhane told the London Free Press, “just makes sense.”

The Ontario government pointed the way by encouraging school boards to prepare for shifts to remote learning, including during closures caused by adverse weather. That province’s back-to-school plan in August 2021 included a provision to enable districts to move smoothly to remote learning in the event of inclement weather.  School boards are directed to develop inclement weather plans with local public health units, encompassing both heat days and storm days.

School districts in the United States have in recent years been gradually abandoning system-wide snow days, particularly since Ohio introduced e-learning days, enabled through “calamity day” plans, back in 2010. The proliferation of remote learning during COVID-19 accelerated the trend, particularly in states with severe weather rivalling that in the Maritimes.

A clear majority of American states are now on board in making the shift. An Education Week research survey, conducted in October 2020, reported that some 39 per cent of American school districts had converted snow days to remote learning days and 32 per cent were considering that change.

Public claims that snow days do not adversely affect student achievement hinge on the number and cumulative effect of days lost. While a January 2014 study covering 2003 to 2010 and undertaken for the National Bureau of Educational Research found minimal negative impact on achievement, that state averaged only 3 to 4 snow days per year and has amongst the lowest rates of student absenteeism.

Cancelling school as often as happens in Nova Scotia and the rest of Maritime Canada does have a detrimental effect on student learning.  One relevant 2008 study, in Maryland public schools, found that as snow days piled-up that did have a cumulative effect, particularly at the elementary level, they did adversely affect student performance on state reading and math assessments.

Long before the pandemic, Nova Scotia students were paying an academic price for system-wide snow days. In the Maryland study, a high level of unscheduled closures – about 10 days (the Nova Scotia average), translated into 5 per cent fewer students meeting Grade 3 standards in reading and mathematics.

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School authorities in the Maritimes have always defended calling snow days and giving everyone a ‘free day’ with no specific academic expectations. We now know that teacher contracts excusing teachers from reporting-in when schools are closed are a big and often unacknowledged factor. That was made abundantly clear when, in late November 2021, New Brunswick Education reversed its position on eliminating snow days.

When pressed by local media for an explanation, Education Department official Flavio Nienow came clean. Schools will continue to be closed on bad weather days, he said, because “in line with collective agreements, teachers are not required to report to work when schools are closed due to inclement weather.”

After all that’s happened and weeks of practice with remote learning, school districts are still clinging to past practice. While cancelling the odd day is understandable in larger cities where snow day cancellations number from 3 to 5 a year, it’s harder to justify cancelling school repeatedly when the lost teaching days accumulate and claims from one week to three weeks of instructional time.

Time will tell whether the pandemic will have achieved what educational policy-makers failed to accomplish – putting an end to the discharging of students and staff on inclement weather days.

What is the common and popular rationale for calling “snow days” without providing alternative learning programs? Why are school snow days still being called after two years of practice transitioning back and forth from in-person to online learning?  Is it a matter of ingrained attitudes or impediments in the form of teacher contracts? What is the most viable solution to minimize the erosion of valuable instructional time?

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Much of the critical fire generated by high school scheduling changes during the COVID-19 pandemic marathon is directed at eliminating the hybrid model and driven by harried and exhausted teachers. “It doesn’t work” is the rallying cry and the obvious short-term solution is to axe what is labelled as an “inferior” model of teaching and learning. Delving more deeply into the raging issue, the source of the trouble is more complicated because it’s precipitated more by reactive pandemic timetable shifts and rooted in broader “design-change” innovations.   

The Pandemic not only turned school systems upside-down, but radically altered its priorities. Toggling back and forth between in-person and online learning became the ‘new normal’ and it has completely up-ended a whole series of ‘design-change’ plans to transform high schools. Regular video-conferencing and remote learning render some of the favoured minimally-guided teaching strategies much less effective, particularly ‘project-based-learning’ and extended group activities. Securing and sustaining student engagement means keeping lessons short and, ideally, no longer than 45 to 60 minutes.  

The more fundamental structural problem facing high schoolers– the length of the instructional periods in minimal guidance spaces—tends to escape close scrutiny. “It’s not just about headsets and webcams. That’s not the problem,” York Region parent  Shameela Shakeel  told The Toronto Star. “The problem is that the children at home are not really connected to the classrooms. There is a big disconnect.”

Two years into the pandemic, the most potentially damaging high school scheduling change has been the so-called ‘quadmester system.’  Introduced in Ontario districts as part of the public health response to COVID-19 in 2020-21, it thrusts students into compressed courses for two long periods each day over half the normal time, while shifting between in-person and online learning. It survived this year in the York public board and a few others with higher-than-average COVID-19 case counts.

School superintendents and high school principals are favourably disposed to ‘block’ schedules with longer and longer class periods. Long before the pandemic hit, they were nudging their school districts, one-by-one, over time, to abandon year-long (linear) courses, offered in 45 to 60 minute slots, normally in packages of 6 or 8 courses over the course of 36 weeks.

Design-change models in Canadian K-12 education have recently been aimed at finishing-off the conventional “Carnegie Unit,” the time-based metric for weighing the value of courses and awarding course credits. Under the Copernican model, pioneered in Canadian high schools in the 1980s, classes were taught for longer periods over the day and over semesters, normally covering one-third or one-half of the year.

The latest iteration, first piloted in Alberta in 2008-09, promoted by the University of Calgary-based Galileo Education Network, and expanded since, removes the standard instructional time requirement and allows students more time, or less time, to complete the course work. According to these Calgary faculty of education professors, the conventional full-year course model exemplifies “assembly line” education and is a “traditional and increasingly irrelevant way to organize student and teacher learning in education systems.”  

The Galileo Education “High School Flexibility Enhancement” project was conceived of as a “high school redesign process” with, it turns out, little or no evidence-based research into its actual affect on student achievement.  “Flexible blocks of learning time, credit recovery options, project-based coursework and teacher advisory groupings” are the priorities, all consistent with what used to be termed “progressive” reform.

Pandemic shifts appear to have advanced the school scheduling change movement. In the summer of 2020, British Columbia secondary school leadership teams seized the opportunity to reorganize around “learning cohorts” and, in five weeks, completely re-designed their school timetables around instructional groups with fewer classes for longer periods of time.

In preparing for the current year, B.C. school boards based their decisions on two documents which echoed Galileo “design-change” theory: a Vancouver school board white paper, prepared in April 2021 by Saskatchewan school change theorist Dean Shareski, and a Canadian education policy research article written by the Galileo Education Network consultants. Student engagement and well-being are prioritized over academic learning and timetable changes justified as a means to the larger end of secondary school transformation. 

The BCSTA “Secondary School Timetable Options” brief, for example, includes a rather skewed “Semester/Linear/Quarter” Model Comparison chart described as “a subjective overview.” Setting aside the one-sided critique of conventional structures, the chart acknowledges that full-year course schedules are still “seen as best meeting the needs of students and programs with an academic focus,” may “provide the best overall quality of learning,” and may be “more effective for intense learning opportunities.”

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The “Quadmester’ model survived an onslaught of opposition in May and June of 2021, mostly emanating from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Canada’s largest school district. Students, teachers and parents coalesced around a #No Quads/ No Hybrids” movement to rid the system of a high school schedule deemed detrimental to student learning, achievement and well-being. Excessively long classes, the “crammed curriculum,” and the accelerated pace of learning precipitated its abandonment at the TDSB and limited its forecasted growth in Ontario.

Recent teacher and parent protests against the hybrid model get it half-right. Students were hurt by the imposition of hybrid blended learning last school year and teachers have exposed its glaring flaws: split focus, clunky online platforms, irregular connections, and exhaustion resulting from ‘double duty’ teaching timetables. Deadly long periods and students completely ‘checking-out’ are of much greater concern to students and parents. 

Adopting the Quad System only compounded the problems plainly visible during the hybrid model high school scheduling experiments. Looking longer-term, design-change schedule reforms such as ‘quadmesters’ will likely have greater adverse impact. Let’s hope students and parents will not be wooed into accepting an imperfect and improvised solution introduced under crisis conditions.   

What’s changed since the Pandemic up-ended high school education?  Do previous “design-change” innovations fit the radically changed teaching-learning conditions?  Has the rapid introduction of remote learning alerted us to more of the advantages of shorter, more purposeful teaching strategies?  In the light of the pandemic, is it time to rethink high school redesign based upon experimental super-block schedules?

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Back in June of 2011, Dirk Van Damme, Head of the OECD’s Innovation and Measuring Progress Division (IMEP), stunned a Toronto gathering of prominent international educators at OISE with a rather harsh assessment of the state of education research.  “It’s mostly of low quality,” he said, “and we need to be more hygenic when using the word research.”

While Van Damme recognized that education research was improving, he claimed that much of the “research” lacked credibility because researchers began from “fixed ideological positions” and limited their work to “small scale” projects with limited broader applicability. He warned then, a decade ago, that we were not “preparing students for 21st century challenges.”

The most recent national study, “Children and Schools During COVID-19 and Beyond,” produced for the Royal Society of Canada by University of Ottawa’s Tracy Vaillancourt and a team of researchers, provides us with a rare opportunity to examine the state of the field. Surely, a team of widely-known university researchers could produce evidence of how the massive disruption and school closures have impacted the learning of 5.7 million Canadian students in the “pandemic generation.”

Studying the Royal Society Policy Briefing report does give you a pretty good sense of the current shape and quality of faculty of education-based research. Social and emotional well-being and children’s mental health are the clear priorities of the vast majority of researchers, mostly trained in child psychology and educational sociology. It’s little wonder, then, that the report emphasizes the social and emotional impacts and focuses, to a large extent, on “notable threats to children’s well-being, educational success, and healthy development” in that order.

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Vaillancourt and her research team do convey a sense of urgency. “We are on the cusp of a ‘generational catastrophe’ that requires swift action to mitigate the harm,” they claim, and we now need to keep schools open. “Schools must be the first to open and the last to close” is the mantra repeated throughout the report. Why we need them open seems to revolve mostly around their 21st century mandate to ensure educational equity and provide social and emotional security for children. Judging from the report, the COVID-19 crisis may well have reinforced the commitment of researchers  to transform schools into “therapeutic institutions” for all children.

What’s strange about the report is the absence of official Canadian data on learning impacts and a call for education gatekeepers to collect and disclose mission-critical data on student achievement, absenteeism, behaviour, and graduation standards. Closing the achievement gap and addressing “learning loss” do not figure in the general policy proposals.  Buried among the ten recommendations is this revealing statement: “We need a precise account of who was impacted, how and for how long, so we can take appropriate steps toward providing systems and services that better support them moving forward.”

Lead author Vaillancourt’s cornerstone essay on the COVID-19 impact on children’s mental health, including school closures and social isolation, is original, reliable and evidence-based, and so is Jessica Whitley’s research summary on the impact on vulnerable children. Few would quibble with this assessment: “Many children and youth have experienced disengagement, chronic attendance problems, declines in academic achievement and decreased credit attainment during the pandemic, with the impact far deeper for those already at-risk.” Learning loss, we can infer, is only of real consequence when it applies to struggling students or those from marginalized communities.

One of the nine essay chapters, “Estimates of Student Learning During COVID-19 School Disruptions,” does cut to the heart of the matter. University of Toronto researcher Scott Davies and University of Waterloo professor Janice Aurini confront the problem squarely: “School disruptions over 2020 and 2021 have likely had a significant impact on children’s learning.” We know this from international research documenting significant “learning shortfalls” during March to June 2020 school shutdowns and more recent international studies showing “learning loss” during online instruction in the spring of 2020.

What we do know is worrisome. “Canada lacks high-quality and largescale data that can be used to directly measure any impacts of those disruptions on student achievement,” Davies and Aurini confirm. “Compounding this problem, provinces like Ontario cancelled their planned standardized testing in 2020 and 2021, precluding the possibility of comparing achievement shortly before and after the school closures. Available studies of achievement are limited to single school boards or handfuls of schools, or parent and teacher surveys that can only capture their perceptions of student learning.” (p. 52) With few exceptions, Canadian researchers have also ignored sound research on “the summer slide” which formed the basis for early estimates of COVID-19 school shutdown setbacks.

Forced to rely upon international studies and research data models, Davies and Aurini claim that the spring of 2020 disruptions alone resulted in “enduring 3-month learning shortfalls and gaps growing between the quartiles up to 1.5 years.” “Most Canadian students struggled, as did students elsewhere in the world,” they conclude, “gaining little ground and soon disengaging from schooling partially or fully.” While students resumed more normal patterns of learning during the interrupted 2020-21school year, the problem was compounded when students “reached a threshold of ‘pandemic fatigue’ and grew tired of online learning.” (pp. 59-60).

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The long-term impacts of “learning shortfalls” are now surfacing, again documented first by international research (UNESCO 2021 and UNICEF 2021). The only significant Canadian research, so far, focuses on social and emotional impacts, often to the exclusion of academic achievement. Poor mental health obviously adversely affects student achievement, but – as Davies and Aurini, point out – the reverse is true because “students who feel they are not achieving will have their well-being compromised”

False binaries bedevil Canadian education research and are much in evidence throughout to RSC report.  The whole idea that prioritizing academic achievement is at odds with priorities for student’s well-being is not really defensible. That faulty assumption was nicely laid to rest in 2020 by University of Cambridge researcher Tania Clarke in a research article exposing “the dangerous discourse of ‘trade-offs in education.”  Academic achievement and student well-being are, more often than not, reciprocal and mutually reinforcing. Simply put, doing better academically improves your outlook and sense of well-being.

The COVID-19 school closures have demonstrated the need for better achievement data for guiding evidence-based policy making in Canadian education. That research gap is exemplified, once again, in the RSC report. Some of the RSC chapters, particularly those produced by University of Ottawa professors Andy Hargreaves and Joel Westheimer, attempt to steer public education away from measuring learning and setting clear expectations. Like much of the current school change literature, those essays privilege student-well being over academic achievement, denigrate the term “learning loss,” and seek to limit or eliminate completely system-wide student assessment.

Actual data from parent surveys, school district reports, and quantitative studies suggest a major disconnect between such educational experts and parents and classroom teachers.  Surveys conducted by the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA 2020) Canadian Teachers Federation (CTF 2020) demonstrate the depth of parent and teacher concerns over erosions of children’s skills and mental health. After the first phase of COVID-19 shutdowns, parents in the Hamilton-Wentworth Board also expressed a strong desire for more teacher-led synchronous learning activities during regular school hours. The vast majority of parents, when given the choice, still opt for in-person schooling, with the possible exception of those who live in multigenerational households. Summer learning loss recovery programs have, according to Davies and Aurini, proven popular with parents who choose them for their children.

The identified “learning shortfalls” will not go away. Here again Davies and Aurini caution us not to brush the problem aside because the COVID-19 school disruptions may well “trigger a series of negative consequences” in the coming years. Taken together with the solid evidence of adverse mental health impacts, the soundest RSC essays simply cry out for high quality and timely data that can guide educational policy while also speaking to the legitimate concerns of parents, teachers and the public.

What’s missing in the current approach to combatting the “learning shortfalls” and psycho-social impacts of COVID-19 on children, teachers and families? Consistent, reliable, and evidence-based data.   More specifically, we need a national educational body to support the ongoing creation of seasonal learning data in which sizeable numbers of students are tested biannually in fundamental literacy and numeracy skills, first in September and then again in June. Such research is already conducted in many jurisdictions around the world. Our leading experts, Davies and Aurini, could not identify a Canadian jurisdiction anywhere in Canada that routinely uses seasonal learning designs to generate the kind of data that can assess interventions aimed at developing students’ well-being and learning. The COVID-19 disruption has made such research more critical than ever. It would provide the kind of data that can assess interventions aimed at developing students’ learning and well-being. Seasonal learning designs that test students at the end and beginning of consecutive school years can also identify the kinds of students that need extra support and the times the year in which they need those supports.

The cumulative impact of school disruptions on proficiency in the foundational literacy and numeracy skills is visible for all to see. Focusing on student well-being in isolation is not the answer and an accumulating body of research, mostly generated outside of Canada, is demonstrating why.  Davies and Aurini at least provide some “estimates” as to the likely learning shortfalls.  Today’s short-term losses, they claim, “may amplify as children move up grade levels and fall farther behind their peers.”  Being better prepared for the possibility of future closures is now a systemic priority and that simply won’t happen without better data that can track the challenges and successes of our students.

The August 2021 RSC study reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of faculty of education research, but all research is handicapped by the paucity of student data. “All policy decisions are made by leaping over the data,” Dr. Bernard Shapiro once said, twenty years ago. Now we know that the critical data is actually missing in K-12 education and it’s time to demand better from the gatekeepers.

Where is the data on the impact of COVID-19 shutdowns and disruptions in Canada on student learning and psycho-social development? What does the Royal Society of Canada report reveal about the preoccupations and implicit biases of education researchers?  How many of the RSC research summaries reaffirm school change theories common before the pandemic? Why, in a collection of nine different studies, does only one confront squarely the lack of reliable student performance and well-being data?

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Eighteen months ago, the COVID-19 pandemic hit us and turned the K-12 education world upside down. School superintendents responsible for regional districts were left scrambling to find their bearings, like everyone else. School shutdowns sent the vast majority of their employees, teachers, district staff and in-school personnel home for weeks on end. Chief superintendents found it lonelier than usual at the top of regional systems of education. Instead of delivering stirring speeches to captive audiences of educators, many resorted to producing improvised, low-tech inspirational Zoom videos to get the message out to ‘the system.’ Frontline educators, in all likelihood, barely noticed because they were totally absorbed in shifts to “emergency home learning,” hybrid model scheduling, and ministering to the needs of anxious children and parents.

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The conventional structure and routines of school district administration, based upon in-person schooling delivered in bricks-and-mortar schools, gave way to what Michael K. Barbour and Can-eLearn aptly termed “toggling between shutdowns” from March 2020 to June 2021. Such disruptions affected top-down educational leadership by playing havoc with the normal ‘span of control’ extending from central office to principals and teachers in the classroom. An April 2021 Canadian study of “pandemic shifts” in British Columbia secondary schools let the cat out of the bag. Caught off-guard by the massive disruption, schools defaulted to pre-COVID practice focusing on ensuring the “social well-being’ of students, an approach in which “academics took a back seat,” even after the resumption of in-person schooling.

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What were Superintendents actually doing during the pandemic education crisis? It was difficult to determine, until quite recently, when some research evidence materialized in British Columbia. It was produced by West Vancouver superintendent Chris Kennedy, one of B.C.s most networked school leaders and a leading champion of “21st century learning.” His study, “How British Columbia School Superintendents Spend Their Time,” submitted for his PhD in Education dissertation at the University of Kansas, demonstrated how hard regional bureaucrats work, but – far more significantly – what absorbed their time during the COVID-19 interrupted 2020-21 school year.

Some 59 of B.C.’s 60 superintendents participated in Kennedy’s survey of superintendents’ work and so they were very representative of their peer group. The B.C. group of CEOs is top-heavy with men, 39 of 60 or 65 per cent, even though K-12 education is largely a women’s field in that province and right across North America. Since 2012, the BC Ministry of Education has embraced system “transformation” and its main tenets, innovation, personalization, and inquiry, usually packaged as “21st century learning.” “Being a passionate learning leader with a strong background in curriculum and assessment,” Kennedy reports, “is now mandatory for the superintendent position.” Getting ahead, typically involves engaging with C21 Canada’s  CEO Academy, generously funded by learning corporations and purveyors of educational technology for schools.

The Pandemic completely disrupted the B.C. school system and threatened to completely derail the implementation of that massive transformation. While the B.C. Learns initiative was high sounding aspirational, and technology-driven, it was conceived when online and virtual learning enrolled 6 to 8 per cent of all students, not the 100 per cent thrust into e-learning, at various times, during the pandemic. The sheer speed and scale of the transformation overtook curriculum and program innovation plans, leaving superintendents, curriculum consultants, and local principals scrambling to keep up with changes in delivery, cohorting, scheduling, and assessment.

Superintendents are often heralded as visionaries, generating outsized expectations, only to find themselves enmeshed in operational problems and spending much of their time ‘putting out fires.”  During the COVID-19 disruptions, with the education house on fire, the B.C. superintendents were compelled to keep their heads down and focus on the immediate and urgent. Thirteen of the 59 superintendents surveyed revealed that they were caught up in the “tyranny of the urgent’ and fully 20 of them, one-third of the group, made direct reference to “urgent issues” dominating their time and eating into longer-term planning and implementation of systemic transformation. One first year superintendent reported that he/she had “no control over my time” and felt “pulled in many directions.” Putting out fires during the pandemic was widespread. “When something comes up in the district, it takes over everything,” was a common refrain. “Priorities are dictated by emergent situations.”

One prime indicator of the COVID-19 impact was revealed during B.C. administrative planning sessions involving superintendents and senior staff during the 2020-21 school year. Prominent Canadian education consultant Dean Shareski, a super-positive former Moose Jaw principal and author of Embracing a Culture of Joy (2016), was hired as the provincial facilitator and attempted to work his usual magic on the assembled educators. Famous for his “Learning is a Joyful Act” motivational school district presentations, Shareski attempted to seize the opportunity to promote “school improvement,” “21st century skills,” “global citizenship,” and “competency-based assessment.” Superintendents, senior administrators and high school principals defaulted to immediate and practical concerns.

Superintendent Kennedy’s final June 2021 thesis, completed under the guidance of Dr. Yong Zhou, a Chinese-born scholar turned American education progressive, made the case that superintendents worked harder than ever, often over weekends, to stay on-top of their responsibilities. Many and perhaps most regional education leaders experienced the stress of the “tyranny of the urgent” and, perhaps for the first time, “a lack of control.” COVID-19 was, in Kennedy’s words, “all-consuming” and involved working long hours with external partners, including public health and ministry officials.

B.C.’s “Pandemic Shifts” are packaged by Shareski as innovations consistent with OECD prescriptions for the educational future. He’s quite adept at winning over B.C. audiences by referring to Finland as “the world’s best educational system” and citing a New York Times piece claiming that B.C. is essentially ‘the new Finland.’ Pandemic high school schedules such as “quadmesters” are invoked as examples of ‘building back better.’

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That’s quite a stretch, judging from Kennedy’s research findings:  New high school schedules were adopted in response to public health mandates and many chose to view it as “necessity is the mother of invention.” While Shareski and his camp followers waxed philosophical about “silver linings,” only a minority of superintendents saw it that way. The minority who did saw advantages in getting rid of long-standing pre-COVID irritants and accountabilities, and specifically provincial assessments, student grades, and conventional marks-based graduation requirements.

How did COVID-19 impact senior education administration? What challenges to management control were presented by the shift to ‘emergency home learning’?  With regular educators teaching students at home or online, were school administrators sidelined and, if so, for how long during the March 2020 to June 2021 period?  Will the massive shift to online learning during 2020-21 ultimately help or hurt the movement for system transformation?    

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