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Archive for the ‘Post-Pandemic Schooling’ Category

‘Everyone is doing their best’ was the prevailing narrative during the COVID-19 school disruption.  That may explain why school authorities either suspended system-wide student tracking or chose to conceal data collected relating to student progress and engagement.  A June 2020 CBC Investigation into this issue in four Atlantic Canadian provinces came up almost empty  and revealed that no one was able to provide any credible information on how many students went missing during pandemic distance learning.

“Doing Our Best” education may well have lasting consequences for students. Coming out of a three-month suspension of in-person, face-to-face teaching and learning, we are beginning to confront the hard realities: the coronavirus generation has fallen months behind, most housebound children were bored and disengaged, and struggling students have lost the most ground.

What we know about the real COVID-19 impact on children and teens did not emanate from education officialdom. With senior education leaders and school districts remaining tight-lipped, public opinion survey pollsters stepped up to fill the vacuum and assist intrepid education reporters trying to penetrate the wall of silence. Back on May 10, over a month ago, the Angus Reid Institute broke the code: “Canadian children are done with school from home, fear falling behind, and miss their friends.” The kids, it turned out, were not alright.

What actually happened during the COVID-19 crisis is coming into clearer focus with the benefit of hindsight. For the first month,  ministries of education, school districts, and educators scrambled to fill the learning gap with “emergency distance learning,” building upon patchy online infrastructure and cobbled together together curriculum combining e-learning and hastily-assembled ‘learning packages.” With few exceptions, Canadian K-12 education was completely unprepared for the system-wide shutdowns.

Thrown completely off-kilter, educational leadership was left fumbling around in the dark looking for the proverbial light switch. Perpetually optimistic technology-driven educators found ‘silver linings amidst the dark clouds, progressive educators focused on responding to children’s “fears, anxieties and trauma,” and global thought leaders rhapsodized about a “better normal where Maslow (finally triumphed) over Bloom. With little warning, parents were expected to guide “Home Learning” with their housebound children.  It looked ominous, but most educators sounded upbeat, made the best of an unsatisfactory situation, and retained some hope that it would all work out somehow.

Taking a closer look at the May 2020 Angus Reid survey, it’s now clear that, despite everyone’s efforts, the COVID-19 educational experience was decidedly substandard for the vast majority of Canada’s five million K-12 students, and possibly damaging for those from disadvantaged and racialized communities. Here’s a succinct summary of the worrisome findings:

  • The biggest worry for over half of all children (ages 10-17) surveyed was “missing out on  work” this school year and next, roughly equal the proportion who feared getting sick themselves.
  • A clear majority of children “attending” school online (60 per cent) were bored or  unmotivated, not very busy with the work, but still “keeping up” with the reduced academic expectations.
  • Children and teens, outside of homework, spent the vast majority of their time glued to small screens, dominated by watching TV/Netflicks, You Tube (88 per cent), and playing video games (74 per cent).
  • Parents may have been doing their best, but it was not good enough, because over half of teens ages 13 to 17 reported needing more help with their work.
  • Some 70 per cent of children and teens reported missing seeing friends and participating in extra-curricular activities, but fewer than 1 in 10 (8 per cent) were willing to concede that they missed going to school.

Missing so much regular schooling, after two of the three months, was already having adverse effects. Most of the students reported that they were “missing out” on school work and were struggling to remain positive, mainly because of deteriorating friendships and relationships.  The so-called “home education blues” were real and, for the most part, went unacknowledged and unreported by Canadian school authorities.

Close education observers and inquisitive parents seeking straight talk about the actual impact of the COVID-19 school shutdown invariably come up empty when seeking answers to questions or any evidence to support periodic accounts of heroic individual efforts or hopeful reports of ‘silver linings.” Education reports out of the United States provided us with a much-needed wake-up call when it came to getting the straight goods on what was really happening to students and parents during the school shutdown.

Two key U.S. education stories exposed the harsh realities of COVID-19 education for students, parents and teachers and raised serious questions about the veil of silence shrouding Canadian K-12 education. New York Times education reporter Dana Goldstein blew the lid off the real story on June 5, 2020 with a feature demonstrating the impact in terms of learning loss.  By September 2020, she reported, most students would be “months behind” with “some losing the equivalent of a full year’s worth of academic gains.” Furthermore, “racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps” would “most likely widen because of disparities in access to computers, home internet connections and direct instruction from teachers.”

A Boston Globe feature on May 23 confirmed that the COVID-19 disruption exposed the reality of digital divide. One in five Boston Public Schools children were found to be “unplugged” from Google Classroom and disengaged to the point where they were essentially “virtual dropouts.” Significant education technology challenges and language difficulties were keeping children from continuing school online. That finding was confirmed in a large-scale study of some 800,000 students conducted by a team of Harvard and Brown university researchers. Mining academic research into student use of Zearn, an online math program, they reported that student progress in math between March 15 and April 30 decreased by some 48 per cent in classrooms located in low-income ZIP codes, and by one-third in classrooms in middle-income ZIP codes.

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated, in microcosm, the extent of the public disclosure deficit in our provincial public education systems. Without American investigative education reporting, we would probably know little or nothing about the stubborn COVID-19 problems of getting students to engage in distance learning or the incredible proportion of children and teens who skipped out on home learning or lacked proper access to the alternative programs.  Knowing that the kids are not alright should spark some needed public discussion about working together on developing and acting upon a comprehensive, evidence-based learning recovery plan.

What happened to the initial plans for COVID-19 Home Learning in Canadian K-12 education? How did most children and teens fare in terms of “continuous learning” during the COVID-19 school disruption? Why were provincial and district education authorities so tight-lipped about the state of distance learning?  Should ministries of education and school districts be responsible for monitoring, collecting and reporting on alternative distance learning programs?  Does the public have a right to know how many children logged-in, remained engaged, and met the expected curricular standards? 

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The COVID-19 pandemic will shutter most Canadian and American schools for three months, preceding the normal two month summer holiday. For the first month, educational leaders, district superintendents, and classroom educators scrambled to patch-together emergency Learn at Home programs, combining distance learning and conventional ‘old school’ lesson packages delivered both online and by ground delivery services. While the great COVID-19 disruption did inspire bursts of creativity, exemplified on blogs and social media, as well as in webinars, the vast majority of students, parents and teachers were essentially left to their own devices, often with patchy curriculum, unreliable internet, and uneven teaching.  Students living in poverty, with severe learning challenges, and complex needs will likely bear the brunt of the fallout from the suspension of regular, in-person, K-12 education. 

Prominent education thought leaders appear to see the educational disruption as an opportunity to re-imagine education. “Moving ahead in the COVID-19 era,” Pamela Osmond-Johnson, Carol Campbell, and Katina Pollock recently claimed,  will involve building upon its lessons and tapping into the vision articulated by Education International, the global teachers’ organization. Coming out of a maelstrom of “illness, grief and trauma,” they believe that “Maslow before Bloom must be “the guiding principle moving forward.”  We should not be seduced by technology in the form of virtual schools or real time video-conferencing, but instead leverage the new-found creativity, build upon project-based learning experimentation, and seek a permanent cessation of standardized student assessment.  In this new path forward, there is no mention whatsoever of the costs of the great disruption in terms of student intellectual growth and achievement. 

Missing twelve weeks of schooling and then experiencing two months of school holidays is bound to have significant impact in terms of student learning loss. Reopening schools and resuming regular K-12 in-school education will have to confront the reality that students, out of school for nearly half a year, will be significantly behind in their expected academic and social development. An American education research institute, the Portland, Oregon-based, North West Education Association has already produced some sobering forecasts, based upon statistical analysis, demonstrating the potential “learning loss” during the shutdown. That study builds upon earlier Brookings Institute studies examining the impact of “summer learning loss’ on student achievement.  Schools and particularly front-line teachers will confront this problem first-hand when school resumes in September 2020 or sometime thereafter.  

Millions of students have either missed out or been minimally engaged in COVID-19 emergency Learn at Home education. While COVID-19 disruption period student attendance and participation rates are not readily accessible in Canada, the evidence surfacing in dozens of American states is that student attendance has been highly irregular, and as many as 25 per cent of all students rarely or never checked-in with their teachers. Leading American education policy researcher Andrew Rotherham of Bellweather Education, reports that anywhere from 7 million to 12 million students have received “no formal schooling” because of the uneven implementation of “in-between” programs, as well as inequities in device and internet access. 

Seasonal learning research allows researchers to compare student learning patterns when school is in versus out of session — and it has definite application in the case of the prolonged COVID-19 school shutdown. NWEA researchers Megan Kuhfeld and Beth Tarasawa estimated COVID-19-related learning loss by using data from a group of 5 million Grade 3 to 8 students who took assessment tests in 2017-18. The research compared what student achievement would be if learning growth continued at the same rate as when schools closed to what it would be if learning loss was typical of a summer slide.

The April 2020 NWEA study was the first to attempt an assessment of the potential learning loss. For their purposes, the two researchers used March 15, 2015 as the last day of school. Their COVID-19 slide estimates, according to the report, suggest students would return in fall 2020 with 63 to 68 % of the learning gains in reading and less than 50% of the learning gains in mathematics— and nearly a year behind in some grades — compared to a regular school year. One caveat is that, unlike the summer holidays, thre was some distance learning provided, likely offsetting some of the projected losses. 

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With 60 million students in Canada and the United States out of school due to the COVID-19 pandemic, educational planners are now wrestling with the fallout affecting students and families, including how to approach instruction in the fall of 2020 when most students will be farther behind than in a typical year.  In Canada, unlike the United States, there is little or no research on the impact of missing school, so it will be largely a matter of guesswork and may fall to regular classroom teachers to figure it out on their own 

The COVID-19 school interruption and summer slide will, in all likelihood, aggravate educational inequalities, compounding the “operation catch-up” problem facing educators. The NWEA researchers, in fact, estimate that losing ground during the COVID-19 school closures will not be universal, with the top third of students potentially making gains in reading. Thus, in preparing for fall 2020, education leaders and classroom educators will likely need to consider ways to support students who are academically behind and further differentiate instruction.

Minimizing or ignoring the learning loss, which is common in the Canadian K-12 education milieu, would be unwise given the length of the gap in schooling and the reality of deepening inequities in access to education.  Here, too, education policy-makers will have to look to the United States for evidence-based recovery plans. The NWEA research team recommends four remedial strategies:

  1. Conduct initial diagnostic student assessments to ascertain where to start your instruction. It needs to be done early, will vary by grade level, and should be as individualized as possible;
  2. Addressing the greater variability in academic skills will render whole class teaching very challenging, and will require more differentiation to meet the learning needs of all students;
  3. Develop student “catch-up” plans that address the ground that needs to be covered and the learning growth rates needed to get back-on-track with learning goals that are more ambitious than usual and yet obtainable;
  4. Respond to the socio-emotional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic by being sensitive to challenging students while being responsive to their student well-being. Be prepared for some residual effects and accommodate them in your teaching, including family illness, loss of older relatives, parental job losses, and fear of catching the virus themselves. 

Missing school for such a prolonged period will, in all likelihood, have major impacts upon student achievement. With the acute period of COVID-19 infections behind us, the focus of schooling will be on “catching-up” on missed work and acquiring the skills to move forward in academic and social development.  Without standardized student assessments, school systems will be flying blind with no way of either assessing the COVID-19 impact or measuring progress made in closing the anticipated student achievement gap. Instead of rhapsodizing about a post-COVID-19 burst of creativity, it may be wiser to focus on shoring up the educational foundations with evidence-informed educational recovery plans.  

What’s most critical in the planning for the resumption of in-school teaching and learning?  Should we be pivoting from “care-mongering” and social and emotional support to addressing the glaring academic inequities and the significant loss in learning across the grades? What are the most essential components of an educational recovery plan responsive to the academic and intellectual development needs of the COVID-19 generation of students? 

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Staggered school start times, medical checkpoints, classes split in half, desks spaced two metres apart, social distancing in hallways, eating lunch in classrooms, and washing hands every two hours. These are just some of the changes being implemented in the highly contested first phase of the reopening of Quebec schools after the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the premiers and public health officers actively planning for opening up again, senior school superintendents are hunkered down and now beginning to map out a plan for post-COVID-19 schools in the era of physical distancing. Seeing images of Danish ‘social distancing’ elementary schools with classrooms full of students spurred some initial detailed resumption planning. It still shocked many parents and educators to see students re-entering schools on May 11 all over Quebec outside of Montreal.

Ensuring the safety and health of students and staff will be the highest priority, of course, in determining when schools can safely re-open. Looking for guideposts, school planners have looked to educational systems like Denmark, as well as New Zealand and California, all ahead of the curve in planning for the transition to regular classes. Facing pushback from anxious parents and teachers, many provinces will be drawn to a go-slow “rota approach” like Australia and Scotland, adopting a one-day-a-week or alternating days schedule.

Schools resumed for pre-school to Grade 5 students in Denmark on April 15, as the first phase in that nation’s relaxation of strict coronavirus lockdown measures. It’s fairly makeshift because, as Danish head teacher Tanja Linnet conceded, “we need to make plans for terrorist attack here—but not this kind of attack.”

Under new Danish school regulations complying with public health sanitary guidelines, start times are staggered, students are seated two metres apart, schoolyards are divided into play zones, and entrance/exit routes diagrammed on school maps. Students wash their hands upon arrival, and then every two hours, and all contact surfaces, including door handles, are disinfected twice per school day.

New Zealand Education Minister Chris Hipkins began to  tackle the huge logistical challenges as he prepared to meet his target re-opening date of April 29.  That meant moving from Level 4 (shutdown) to Level 3 (partial opening) of schools and early childhood centres. Schools are reopening in “waves.” Teachers were allowed back first to plan for the continuation of online learning and the resumption of in-class teaching. Distance learning continues to be delivered from schools, especially in communities where broadband connections are better and teachers have ready access to more resources.

Children of essential workers were identified in New Zealand as a priority in returning to school, making it easier for their parents to do their jobs. Starting with the integration of children of parents critical to the workforce sparked vocal criticism from principals who claimed it sent out the signal that schools are little more than “baby-sitting services.”  Senior high school students, they claimed, were in greater need of teacher-guided instruction to mitigate the impact of closure on “learning loss” and preparedness for their next stage.

Getting younger kids back to school emerged as a priority for California Governor Gavin Newsom in a state where 6.1 million students from K to 12 were enrolled in “distance learning” for weeks on end. Addressing educational inequities was California’s biggest concern, especially in poor and marginalized Los Angeles region communities where students lack computers, adequate broadband, and suitable home study conditions.

Schools in Canada’s provincial K-12 systems will likely look significantly different when they reopen elsewhere either in June or September of 2020. Among the operational changes you can expect are: staggered school schedules to create smaller grade-level cohorts; regular medical check-ins with temperature monitoring; deep cleaning and stricter sanitization measures; social distance classrooms and movement routines: blended (combined seat-based and online) learning; classroom take-out lunch services: expanded school-based supply teacher pools;  limited athletics and arts cocurricular programs; small, congregated Special Needs/ ELL classes; and academic ‘catch-up’ programs to mitigate significant ‘learning loss’. among certain cohorts of students.

Announcing the resumption of school will spark renewed fears of a flare-up of COVID-19 spread by ‘vectors’ in the communal school environment. School re-openings announced by, or in conjunction with public health authorities, may help to allay such student and parent concerns. We are already seeing a parent backlash comparable to the “My kid is not going to be a Guinea Pig” Facebook protest which garnered more than 40,000 supporters in Denmark.

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Seasoned public health observers, spurred on by National Globe and Mail Health Reporter Andre Picard, claim that it is pre-mature in May 2020 for Quebec students to be heading back to school.  Principals and teachers need to be brought on-side to ensure that school re-opening is ultimately a success. Properly equipping teachers with protective masks and access to PPE, personal protective equipment, may be necessary until the immediate threat of a second wave has passed. Reducing class size groupings and expanding the school-level pool of substitute teachers should help to allay teacher concerns.

Whether the radical COVID-19 shift to e-learning will actually stick is more difficult to assess. Thrust unprepared into the emergency use of e-learning technology may sour teachers on adopting ed tech and activate their social justice impulses, focusing on the digital divide in terms of access.  Parents and families struggling to cope with the fears, anxieties, and stress of a pandemic are not at their best. When the crisis is finally over, this totally unplanned “experiment” with e-learning may well send everyone in K-12 education back into their comfort zones.

*An earlier and abridged version of this commentary appeared in The Globe and Mail, April 28, 2020.

What will post-COVID-19 Canadian schools look like? What is the tipping point when it is safe to reopen schools without significant health risks?  Is the early reopening in Quebec an aberration, or a predictor of what is to come? Why is it so much easier to authorize a full-system shutdown than it is to stage a resumption of school following a pandemic? 

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