New Challenges: The Pandemic’s Toll on this Generation’s Learners
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, September/October 2021 Issue
By Alex Newman
When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March of 2020, schools shuttered and students were cut off from their friends. Teachers scrambled with the sudden transition to online instruction. As quickly as that all unfolded, the same can’t be said of the eventual return to society, and therefore to school; we can’t be expected to instantly revert back to our old ways. A lot has happened to each and every one of us.
From the unknown emotional impacts of the pandemic to the uncertain extent of learning loss in their students, educators aren’t sure what awaits them when in-person learning resumes this fall.
Transitioning to remote learning would have been a huge endeavour with months and years of planning, let alone unfolding overnight. There have been a lot of reported technology challenges and many “behind the scenes” challenges too: parents rising at 4 a.m. to get a head start on their own work before helping the kids with schooling; grandparents pitch-hitting as homeschoolers; young students helping younger family members with their studies because parents are out of the house.
But through it all, teachers have arguably shouldered much of the load. In a Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) News survey from this past May, one teacher responded that “colleagues feel broken. We were ignored and pressured to do quadruple the work, with no breaks, no support, and constant criticism from a government that ignores us, and applauds themselves for deciding we should do online learning, without any resources, instructions, or time to develop programs.”
Mental Health Impacts
Now teachers face an additional burden—the anticipated increase in social-emotional challenges. Before the pandemic, an estimated 15-20% of students were dealing with mental health issues. With the loss of caring teachers, friend networks, after school programs, and extracurricular activities like sports, that number has increased significantly.
When Public Health Ontario surveyed high school students during the first lockdown, troubling trends were observed: students reported increases in boredom (73%), loneliness (55%), stress (43%), and anxiety (38%). Another study showed that 70% of students aged 6-18 in southern Ontario experienced a decline in their mental health last year.
Despite this, most kids will “quickly get into the swing of school, especially because they’re so keen to get back,” says Jean Clinton, psychiatrist and clinical professor at McMaster University’s psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences department in Hamilton, ON. But a small percentage of students will find school more challenging, especially those with social anxieties who haven’t had to face that for the past 18 months, she explains. And when students “are anxious,” Clinton adds, “they can’t engage in learning. The science is clear on this.”
Mental health specialist Tracy Vaillancourt, who is a Tier 1 Chair at the University of Ottawa, agrees that while many kids are resilient, those who were “already vulnerable, will have had added stresses and their resilience will be even lower.” She defines resilience as “the ability to adapt despite risk and adversity.”
Those vulnerable kids are the ones she worries about most. “Some are isolated at home because parents work long hours outside, some have lost parents, or grandparents, [experienced an increase in] family violence, parents have lost jobs—all of which are difficult environmental factors for children.”
Given the likelihood of mental health problems when these kids come back to school, “they’re less likely to achieve academic success,” Vaillancourt says. And if their resilience doesn’t improve in the long run, she adds, “it can impact their ability to form good work and personal relationships as adults.”
When the pandemic first hit, the primary concern was to ensure the health and well-being of students and teachers. Schools closed and classes moved online so that learning could continue—albeit in a different form. But despite everyone’s best efforts, research shows that there has been learning loss, something teachers already knew.
In a 2021 survey of Canadian educators, 55% said fewer students were meeting their learning objectives compared to previous years, and 70% were worried that some students won’t be able to catch up. As indicated in a recent report from the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, both local and international research has found that closures lead to learning losses: “There is widespread consensus… that students learn better in person than online, and that access to online learning is a challenge for many due to technical, economic, or other barriers.”
The report also found, not surprisingly, that “COVID-related hardships disproportionately affected students with lower socioeconomic backgrounds, racialized children and youth, newcomers, and students with disabilities.”
For those kids who have issues beyond their control, they’ll end up falling even farther behind, notes high school science and math teacher Anna Marsh, who lives in Waterloo, ON.
Academic Gaps Versus Emotional Care
Figuring out how to address these new challenges upon returning to school is tricky. And for many stakeholders, there are differences of opinion on what should take priority. When Clinton worked with several school boards on a return plan, they were so focused on creating a sense of belonging and connection that they barely talked about learning loss.
Meanwhile, parents seemed to be exclusively concerned about learning loss and what it means for the future, especially for jobs—because in terms of future employment, the picture across the globe isn’t pretty. The World Bank estimates that this generation of students stands to lose up to $10 trillion in earnings over their lifetimes due to school closures.
Some school boards are trying to compensate for these learning gaps by encouraging teachers to remove high stakes assessments (like exams) and pare down to essential curriculum. “But what counts as essential?” Marsh asks. “Chemistry is one subject you build on. If you miss the foundation one year, you can’t just pick it up the next. I understand giving students credits so they can be on a path to graduate. But giving credit that is not earned doesn’t help if they are lost in the next grade.”
Others believe that the academic and emotional impacts of the pandemic are of equal importance, and must both be addressed to help students move forward. “Focusing solely on learning loss isn’t going to work because each student has experienced vastly different psycho-social stressors,” says Vaillancourt.
Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, an assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, ON, agrees. “We have a children’s mental health crisis that pre-exists the pandemic and was grossly underfunded.” But addressing the emotional side alone won’t be enough—some academic standards need to be maintained as well. “High expectations help kids do better,” she says. “Achievement can take you beyond yourself and is an important way schools contribute to students’ mental health.”
The primary task of schools is to help students learn, says Gallagher-Mackay, who also co-authored Pushing the Limits: How Schools Can Prepare Our Children Today for the Challenges of Tomorrow. “School matters for the world, for future parenting, income, future citizenship. We need people who can understand evidence and can solve global crises when they emerge, so we can’t go too far with addressing only mental health.”
As for testing, the schools need to take it easy. “Communicate with home so parents don’t sweat the marks, until the kids have had a chance to catch up,” Gallagher-Mackay says. “For the students who are failing some subjects or all, families should work with the school to do what they can to bolster the kid’s academic career.” You don’t want them repeating courses, she adds, because that’s been found to end with negative outcomes, such as dropping out of school.
Can Being Back at School Help Students’ Mental Health?
That depends on how we deal with things now, Clinton explains. “Disorders are highly treatable in young children as long as they’re caught early. And school can play a big part—it takes a teacher or bus driver to notice a child is not their best self. Catching things early allows for building children’s competencies in social and emotional learning, promotion of good health, prevention of bad outcomes, and pathways. But school is not a treatment place. That’s the role of the mental health system which has long wait lists, and gross underfunding.”
This is why Clinton has been pushing a community strategy: “School is the best place to promote well-being, because that’s where students who need help are identified. But the schools can’t do it alone, and that’s where partnerships between school and community come in.”
Vaillancourt points out that one factor in resilience and success is a steady, reliable, nurturing relationship with a competent adult. “Often that’s a teacher. For many children, the brightest part of a day is their time with teachers at school, so for the last 18 months, these kids have gone without that vital connection.” Research has shown that children and youth flourish in safe, structured environments, which is “why we’ve been pushing to open schools,” she adds.
“The pandemic has made people really recognize the importance of the education system for more than just academics,” Clinton notes.
Alex Newman is a Toronto freelance writer and editor. Visit her website, alexnewmanwriter.com.