The pandemic’s effect on student learning


By Chelsey King


Audio:  The sound of school bells ringing, fading into children talking

Chelsey King: When you stop and think about it, it’s crazy that over the course of just this past year alone, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected so many different aspects of not only our communities but our society as a whole. And although many institutions have had to make changes to ensure that these proper COVID-19 protocols are being followed, one of the most heavily impacted institutions by far has been schools, from forced closures in 188 countries to the disruption of the learning process of over 1.7 billion children, youth and teens. These changes have not only heavily impacted the way that we learn but have also had a huge impact on the mental health of those who are attending. And due to these rapid changes in our educational system, the debate of how online schooling is currently affecting children has been a major topic of discussion. Nonetheless, in-person learning is important for the future of education, not only due to its key role in how we’re able to move, interact and fit in with the rest of society, but also, this kind of learning environment provides a safe place, with all the necessary materials needed, for students to excel throughout their education without any unnecessary distractions or stresses. And many members of the schooling community have also made their voices known as to how this learning process has not only affected them but their sense of community at school. In the case of students, Mark Wright and Emily Christiansen have varying concerns about their education being taught online, coming from the small town of Paris, Ontario. Mark and Emily have known each other for roughly two years now. They met while completing their secondary education through an online learning program called Turning Point. Turning Point is a program offered through Paris District High School. This program lets youths up to 21 years of age return to school at any time in order to complete their schooling at their own pace. Although Mark and Emily had been a part of this online learning program for roughly two years now, they have felt first-hand the implications of this online learning format.

Mark Wright: I liked that I was able to see all my work at once and what I needed to get done, but I didn’t like the fact that I didn’t really have as much help as I would have had in class, and I don’t really know where to get that help. I really think that we’ve lost a sense of community because we’re all trying to self-isolate and just stay away from everyone.

Emily Christensen: I … it’s difficult because, for, like, the majority of the time, I don’t have a computer, like, at home. They gave me one, and they gave me like a password and everything, but I have no prior, really, knowledge with technology at all, so, like, I, it’s hard and I struggle every day ’cause I’m so used to doing it by hand.

Chelsey King: Although Mark and Emily are just two of the students currently completing their education online, they share the same opinions as many of the other youth and teens currently switching to this new online learning platform. And because students come from a variety of different backgrounds, they all have varying struggles with completing their education online. According to Patricia Perez, an associate professor in the International Psychology Department at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, students not only have to deal with academic struggles anymore but a wide variety of non-academic barriers.

Patricia Perez: I think that part of the development to is whether or not students actually have the infrastructure to actually learn online, right? So, from a developmental standpoint, I think the biggest difference is kids who can grasp and adapt really quickly to online learning versus kids who can’t. And that could be for a lot of reasons, right? It could be their families are not tech-savvy and that they don’t know how to do all of that and can’t teach them, so that’s a barrier, or it could also mean that a child may have some special needs where Zoom and visuals or audio or noise that’s going on in their home, maybe a barrier and a challenge for them to actually learn when they’re expecting a routine that’s in class and 360 degrees sensory, so there’s that. The other issue, in addition to mental difference, is what I was alluding to before, which is really to break it down, is the haves and have-nots. So, whether you have things, like, everyone in our school district gets a computer, however, does everyone have internet access? I mean, that’s one thing. Do they have a parent sitting next to them, helping them like an aid? Because many parents have to work, so that’s a toss-up. Do they have siblings that can actually do their own work, maybe in school and college, and then also help their younger siblings or whatever siblings? So, those, I mean, it really then becomes an issue of whether you have the resources and whether you have access to the resources to.

Chelsey King: The issue of not having equal access to things such as the internet, computers, parents or siblings, as Dr. Perez was stating, is that this creates a wide gap between children that have access to these resources and those who don’t. So, it’s not surprising that some students are adapting more quickly to this online learning format. Students, however, are not the only ones struggling with this adjustment to online learning. Many parents have also expressed their concerns about education being solely taught online, especially with the struggle of having to work while their child is at home trying to complete their education. Kelsie Hicks, an elementary school teacher from Woodstock, has been teaching for the past 11 years now. She is also the proud mother of two and knows first-hand the struggles of working and teaching from home.

Kelsie Hicks: I think that it’s far too unsustainable for most families in our province to be able to do that, you know? Women and men of the household now work, so to be able to have children at home, doing online learning, isn’t really something that’s feasible for most, most families, and I know that a lot of families, like a lot of people, are now actually going to be working from home permanently. I still don’t think it’s feasible because for a parent to be at home monitoring their child and helping support their child with their learning at home while trying to also keep a full-time job is just not sustainable.

Chelsey King: Like Kelsey, many parents feel this new method of learning is just far too unstable for the parents that have to continue to get up and go to work every day, especially when their children are at a younger age. Dava Oliviera, another mother of two from Woodstock, has expressed her struggles with trying to raise her two children while continuing her job as a client service worker for the Municipality of Oxford County.

Dava Oliviera: The thought around it is, is you can’t be everything to your children. You can’t be the mom and the dad, or the parent and the aunt and the uncle and grandparent and the school teacher and the soccer coach. And then, they need people to need…. Kids need other people in their lives. They bring different things to the table.

Chelsey King: And I think we all can agree that having more than one teacher throughout our lives has shaped who we are today. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, by having multiple role models, children can observe multiple types of behaviour and try to mimic it. These behaviours help shape how they behave in school, relationships or when making difficult decisions.

Mrs. Oliveria has not only touched on the importance of exposing children to multiple role models through in-person schooling but has also experienced first-hand the confusion that can come with learning online.

Dava Oliviera: So, we did have a situation where the first week of the schooling, my daughter seemed to be doing OK on her own, and then at the end of the week, we got a bit of a report for the Google Classroom and she hadn’t really handed in a lot of the math. And I had to go to her and say, what is going on? And she just didn’t know what she was doing, so she ignored it. So, then we went out to the cabana, and I learned very quickly about compound interest and everything else so that I could help her and teach her, and it was really, really hard, and she was frustrated, and I was frustrated because that’s not where my role is, right? My role in her life is a lot different. So, yeah, I don’t, I don’t believe that a parent should have to be … I just don’t think that it’s good for the children to only have one teacher.

Chelsey King: And these feelings of frustration can be felt by many people that are currently dealing with this transfer of learning. The role of parents has definitely changed because of this pandemic. Where you once had a schooling system that would take your child and teach them subjects like math, science, English and give them opportunities to make friends and build bonds, parents are now in a situation where they might have to get a babysitter during the day while they’re at work. They might have to work longer hours to pay for that babysitter. They might have to re teach themselves subjects or even look into getting tutors for their children, and they also have the struggle of giving their kids opportunities to meet new people. Everyone struggles with different subjects throughout their schooling, even parents. So, these feelings of frustration are definitely understandable.

Chelsey King: Although it’s undeniable that these feelings of frustration are carried throughout everyone currently dealing with this change, the true toll that this learning format is going to have on its students, teachers and faculty members is presently unknown, and this is due largely in part to the lack of data that’s been able to be collected, analyzed and interpreted. According to Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, an assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University who is currently studying and conducting research to see how this transferred to online learning, is truly affecting kids. It’s undeniable that this virtual format will have an impact.

Kelly Gallagher-Mackay: One of my strongest opinions is that we desperately need good-quality, large-scale data to understand the impact on kids in Canada, and we don’t have any right now. It’s a really significant omission in the literature. So, we have a lot of speculation and we have data from other countries about how kids have been affected by the online learning situation, but we don’t have very much about what’s actually happening in our schools where things might be different. So, for example, a lot of, a lot of places in the States, they don’t have policies where kids are supposed to get access to a device in the Internet. That’s going to create a very different set of circumstances than here, where almost everybody did get a device, even though there remain tech barriers. So, we need Canadian data and, also, we just generally have a stronger public school system than a lot of other places, so, in the absence of Canadian data, what do we know? We know that internationally, there was really a lot of concerns that kids were learning less because of either the fully interrupted schooling that we saw from, say, March to June last year. We saw a lot of evidence that kids were learning less in particularly math, but also reading, and that the gaps in learning were not equally distributed. Disadvantaged kids were further behind after breakdown in schooling.

Chelsey King: In the absence of data and with the future of education seemingly leaning towards allowing for more classes to be taught online, or at least giving students the option to take more classes online, Tammy Vallieres, a kindergarten teacher, says that if this transition to online learning is going to be integrated into our educational system, we first need to teach these students a greater set of soft skills. Soft skills are things, including how to deal with stress, how to deal with change and how to take care of yourself and others during these tough times. By doing so, students will be able to combat these feelings of anxiety and stress and allow them to become better adjusted not only to this learning format but also to be able to learn no matter their circumstance.

Tammy Vallieres: Let’s face it, even in the schools we don’t value soft skills We value math and language and science, right? So, until we start to shift that those soft skills actually set us up for success in all the other subjects, we won’t have the same kind of success or transition into ease in creating those environments and learning environments in all the other subjects. So, it’s a carry over.

Chelsey King: To make this new online environment a successful learning platform for students, soft skills need to be implemented and taught to children at a young age, though it’s never too late to start learning how to use these coping methods throughout any aspect of our lives. These coping skills do have the potential to ease the stress of students when making any sort of change, especially when dealing with anything during this pandemic change is inevitable, and as a society, we have to learn how to deal with that in a positive way. And although the thoughts and opinions of everyone currently participating in this remote learning differ, some people absolutely love it, while others absolutely hate it. It does seem that everyone acknowledges the overall importance of in class instruction.

Allen Watkins, who has a five-year-old boy in French immersion, says the key to online learning is encouraging your child to ask questions to speak up and become a part of this online community.

Allen Watkins: I think the biggest adjustment is just realizing that it’s not going to be perfect. I think the biggest thing is to teach your child to ask the teacher. We really focus on that: if you don’t understand ask, don’t be afraid and don’t be anonymous in the room.

Audio: Fade out to music