Engagement, School Community, Well-being

Challenges and Opportunities

Student perspectives on the impact of COVID-19

Schools play an integral part in the lives of children and youth. Not only is this a space for intellectual development, but it is also where many social skills and core competencies are acquired. During the past three years, provinces and territories implemented a variety of measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, including school closures and remote learning. While these measures were focused on reducing the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, there have been other consequences and impacts on the lives of students.

We are still trying to understand the impact of the pandemic on students, but we do know that there were huge repercussions throughout all education systems across Canada. Challenges included, but are not limited to, staff and student mental health, increased inequalities between learners, staff shortage and chronic attendance problems, learning loss, cancellation of sports and extracurricular activities, and adapting to online learning. There were also, however, a few opportunities that emerged: enhanced teachers’ digital skills, learning outside the classroom, Indigenous land-based education, prioritizing opportunities for authentic learning, and improved curricula in some jurisdictions.

It is important to recognize students’ intersectional identities and varying circumstances when discussing the impact of COVID-19 on students. We should not generalize the experiences of all youth. Not all communities, or students, faced the same impact of COVID-19.

Here, we share our experiences during the pandemic. These reflections only represent our individual experiences and not all students’ experiences.

Online learning

Fiona: It was January 2020 for me when my school announced that we would be doing classes online. Until that point in my life, I had never used Zoom or Google classroom. In a week, my peers and I were thrown into an unfamiliar world.

The class was just an hour of looking at black screens with occasional emoji reactions from half-asleep students. Instead of interactive learning, we were asked to watch pre-recorded lectures, usually on Zoom, by teachers. As much as teachers tried their best to make lessons engaging, these lessons were just not as effective.

For example, in Grade 9 science, we had to learn about the different colours of flames. In a pre-pandemic classroom, students would participate in elaborate experiments and see the different flames at school. In our new class setting, the teacher displayed different pictures of the flames on his screen and explained them one by one. We were unable to experience the bright colours of the flame and experience the excitement. As a result, the information from the class was not deeply impressed upon us.

Raeesa: Learning online was a challenge at times. From poor internet connections disrupting our classes, to needing to constantly help my siblings who were often confused after their lessons, to staring at a screen for prolonged periods, online learning had many flaws. I found that fewer people spoke and gave answers to questions during online classes, which made things harder for teachers. Due to less student participation, classes felt longer and got boring at points. It was especially sad when the teacher had to wait for someone to answer their question. The flow of the class wasn’t as interesting or engaging, which affected students’ learning and interest.

On the plus side, learning from the comfort of my home was better for me, since I was in my own learning space. I got to explore and get used to using technology more often for school tasks, which was helpful since in the future most of us will use apps on our devices to complete our assignments and projects.

Lack of structure, need for more independence

Fiona: We used to have structured class schedules with strict expectations, like arriving to class on time and being there for attendance. However, as online classes rolled out, there was no one there to ensure we joined the online classes, and in many instances, classes were cancelled due to an unstable network. Because classes weren’t as effective, I had to figure out ways to learn on my own, so I found myself trying to watch crash-course YouTube videos and Khan Academy. Many classmates also resorted to these sources of information. Over time, we felt a disconnection between the teachers and us because they were no longer the people we went to for concerns and inquiries.

Raeesa: During the pandemic, without a teacher being there to make sure I did my work, I had to learn to be responsible for myself and manage my time independently to complete all my assignments and work at home. I also learned the importance of communicating with teachers. We were able to chat and text with teachers online, and I learned to be the one responsible for communicating with my teachers for help, because they are not able to help me if I don’t ask them.

Social impacts

Raeesa: For me, school has always been the place where I can participate in different activities like sports, arts, and clubs, and it has provided me with many opportunities. I missed out on many in-person activities, such as school assemblies and playing on certain sports teams due to the pandemic.

Fiona: Looking at the greater picture, the pandemic took away the chance for many students to discover their passions. I believe that passion is discovered through meaningful encounters with peers and teachers. With the pandemic, courses that many used to enjoy became mundane and not enjoyable. There were fewer interactions with teachers, less face-to-face communication. In the crucial years of interest exploration in Grades 8, 9, and 10, some were unable to explore their interests to the full extent.

However, the pandemic helped me appreciate the resources I have in my life. Pre-pandemic, there were no breaks. I was involved in hockey, rugby, multiple extracurricular classes, debate, and more. Right after school, my mom would drive us to all sorts of extracurricular programs. When we got home, my sister and I would quickly eat and go to our rooms to do homework. In contrast, after the pandemic hit a lot of classes were cancelled or were moved online, which gave my family a lot more family time. I was able to have more conversations with my mom and understand her immigration story to Canada. This gave me a stronger sense of family and appreciation for the things my mom has sacrificed to build a life in Canada.

Youth leadership

Fiona: The pandemic brought out a huge surge of youth activists and youth leaders. There were many rising issues regarding educational resources, technology, and homelessness. Youth were inspired to speak up and aid their community members after seeing how the pandemic impacted their local communities. On a personal level, I run a non-profit organization, United Speakers Global, that aims to make public speaking resources more accessible to youth. Just after I joined the organization, the pandemic hit and the initiative became completely online – which at first seemed a problem. However, with an increased demand for these programs, we reached more students not only in the GTA but also in 11 different cities globally. Through this organization, I met youth leaders in Kuwait, Shanghai, Zambia, the U.S., and other places.

Last words

Raeesa: While the pandemic had its negative impacts on my learning, there were also some perks and learning opportunities. I like to think of it as a matter of perspective. I could have looked at the pandemic as an obstacle I was unable to overcome. Instead, I looked at the pandemic as a learning opportunity and used all the obstacles that came my way as stepping stones to opening my mind to different perspectives and ways of learning. The challenges helped me move forward instead of halting my path. In the end, it is our perception that forms our life and the way we choose to live it.


Photos: iStock, Fiona Shen and Raeesa Hoque

First published in Education Canada, April 2023

Meet the Expert(s)

Fiona Shen

High School Student Writer, Havergal College and CCUNESCO Youth Advisory Council (YAC)

Raeesa Hoque

Student, Collège Jeanne-Sauvé

Raeesa Hoque is a student from Collège Jeanne-Sauvé in Winnipeg, Man., and part of the  Read More

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