During the pandemic, school closures affected almost all the children on planet Earth, with billions more parents, educators, and school staff impacted as well.
In Canada, schools were closed for between eight weeks (in Québec) and 26 weeks (in Ontario) from March 2020 to June 2021. Many schools closed again in January 2022 because of the Omicron variant. By now, we know the drill. When schools close, classes move online: teachers use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous instruction and activities to help students learn, and parents of younger children pick up their unofficial teachers’ assistant roles.
Profound impacts on learning
Schools are where children and youth play, build relationships, create, develop their sense of selves, and need to be active. They are also, fundamentally, a place where students gain academic skills. Those skills include literacy and numeracy, which are the two most often measured. They also include developing scientific foundations, and learning about history, geography, and citizenship. Students’ learning and academic progress is a key determinant of health, income, happiness, and civic participation across the lifetime. Unaddressed gaps in these outcomes are very likely to contribute to the continuation, or deepening, of long-term social inequalities.
The overwhelming weight of international evidence1 suggests that, on average, students made less academic progress during pandemic-related closures than they would have in normal years (e.g. Hammarstein et al., 2021). Research shows that relative to previous years, there were greater gaps for younger children and in math achievement as opposed to English/language arts. Many studies looked at issues of equity. Where data is disaggregated, there have been consistent findings that such groups as low-income students, Black and Latinx students, students with special education needs, and English-language learners have fallen disproportionately far behind (see Gallagher-Mackay, Srivastava, et. al, 2021). Those same groups have also been disproportionately affected by the hardships of the pandemic – a higher burden of illness, household stressors such as unemployment, less access to technology, and so forth.
More recent large-scale studies with data from spring 2021 – 15 months into the pandemic – have showed that students who experienced more time in remote learning did, on average, worse during the pandemic than those who had more time learning in person (Halloran et al., 2021). Further, students who gained ground with a return to in-person learning lost it again during subsequent closures – even with significant support from synchronous learning (Renaissance/Educational Policy Institute, 2021).
In Canada, most large-scale assessments – which might allow us to benchmark progress using comparable data – were suspended from 2020 to 2021. One of the few investigations using standardized measures was led by University of Alberta’s George Georgiou, who compared the reading scores of elementary students captured in an annual September assessment. He found that younger students demonstrated greater learning loss than older students, and those in Grades 1–3 who were already struggling before lockdowns were up to six months behind where they should have been by September 2020.
What should be done to support academic recovery?
Though there have been investments in safety measures, Canadian commitments to educational recovery have been far lower than other countries (see Gallagher-Mackay et al., 2021). For example, the federal government in the United States has committed $25 billion (of a total $124 billion for K–12) to education recovery, alongside investments by individual states, which have constitutional responsibility for education.
Where there has been large-scale recovery funding there has also been a profusion of programming, research, and active experimentation into effective ways of helping students catch up. The resources available through Brown University’s Annenberg Institute (https://annenberg.brown.edu/recovery), for example, provide terrific roadmaps to best practices for learning acceleration and to address key challenges faced by educators and school systems. There are a number of specific approaches worth highlighting.
Small group tutoring (one tutor with up to five students) is a complement to – not a replacement for – the more complex work of a classroom teacher. Our recent evidence review (Gallagher-Mackay, Mundy, et al., 2021; see also Nickow et al. 2020) highlights evidence that “high dosage tutoring” – at least three times a week – is one of the most effective educational interventions, especially when it is closely linked to in-school curriculum. For example, in rigorous studies, full-time college graduates in a national service program were able to gain two and a half years of learning in math over the course of one year. School-based tutoring has been a key plank of recovery efforts in the U.K., U.S., and Australia.
Voluntary summer school programs
There is promising evidence that high-quality voluntary summer programs of at least five weeks duration – programs that include both academic instruction and enrichment activities to promote attendance and pleasure in learning – can boost achievement for participating students (McCombs et al., 2019). Small groups (fewer than 15 students) and specialized supports for students with special education or English language learning needs led to more powerful impacts. This research was conducted on in-person summer schools, and many students – including those with the greatest needs – may not choose to participate.
Targeted class size reductions
Large-scale data from France showed a surprising outcome: most of the learning losses found in Grade 1, 2, and 6 tests from 2020 were regained by September 2021. Moreover, achievement gaps based on socio-economic status (SES) initially widened, but by September 2021, the gaps had narrowed (Rosenwald, 2021). One factor that may have played a role in the French case is class size: in 2017, a new policy halved class sizes for Grade 1 and 2 classes in priority (low-SES) areas across the country. During the 2020/2021 school year all priority-area Grade 1 and 2 classrooms served a maximum of 12 (rather than 24) students (OECD, 2020). It is possible that the smaller class sizes in targeted regions across the country helped swiftly mitigate learning losses among particularly vulnerable groups.
Wraparound services to reconnect families and community
COVID-19 has fractured or further damaged relationships between schools, family and community. Safety measures have kept families out of schools, while underscoring the need for broader social supports beyond what schools are set up to provide: from settlement services to social work, mental health supports or opportunities for recreation. Unfortunately, current staffing doesn’t make room to build these enriching connections. There is a long history of research on community schools (see Maier et al., 2017). Canadian research shows that even a 0.5-time position dedicated to strengthening community can be transformative – providing a great return on investment in terms of bringing resources into the school (Lamarre et al., 2020).
More harm than good: not all strategies productive
There is evidence to suggest certain approaches should be avoided. In particular, having students repeat years of schooling is extremely expensive and has been associated with heightened risk of drop-out in a large volume of studies. Compressed curriculum – without additional supports – has not proved effective (Allensworth & Schwartz, 2021). Narrowing the focus of the curriculum to the purely academic, at the cost of physical activity, social-emotional learning, and opportunities to engage in creativity and citizenship learning would fail to reflect the many aspects of children’s development supported by schools.
Ongoing need for tracking student outcomes
Whatever approach we undertake, tracking student outcomes matters. Consistent aggregation of teacher-administered diagnostic assessment data would support this goal, if large-scale assessments aren’t going to be used.
We need this data to identify gaps, to support an appropriate, targeted strategy for deploying resources, and to better understand the effectiveness of whatever recovery measures we finally undertake.
There have been significant learning impacts related to the pandemic, but there are also promising educational interventions and supports that can help students thrive and recover academically, support educators facing enormous challenges, and help address some of the system’s long-term inequities. Canada needs to get moving.
First published in Education Canada, March 2022
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1 While the overwhelming majority of the studies reviewed show significant losses (e.g. Kuhfeld, Tarasawa, et al., 2020), some studies in Germany and the Netherlands found that many students improved in limited subjects through practice in online environments over the pandemic (e.g. Spitzer & Musslick, 2021). Studies based on general tests of knowledge and skills – either national/state assessments or diagnostic, including in the Netherlands – all point to significant losses.
Allensworth, E., & Schwartz, N. (2020). School practices to address student learning loss.
EdResearch for Recovery Project. https://annenberg.brown.edu/sites/default/files/EdResearch_for_Recovery_Brief_1.pdf
Gallagher-Mackay, K., Srivastava, P., et al. (2021). COVID-19 and education disruption in Ontario: Emerging evidence on impacts. Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table. https://covid19-sciencetable.ca/sciencebrief/covid-19-and-education-disruption-in-ontario-emerging-evidence-on-impacts
Gallagher-Mackay, K., Mundy, K., et al. (2021). The evidence for tutoring to accelerate learning and address educational inequities during canada’s pandemic recovery. Diversity Institute at Ryerson University.
Halloran, C., Jack, R., et al. (2021). Pandemic schooling mode and student test scores: Evidence from US states (No. w29497; p. w29497). National Bureau of Economic Research. doi.org/10.3386/w29497
Hammerstein, S., König, C., et al. (2021). Effects of COVID-19-related school closures on student achievement – A systematic review. PsyArXiv. doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/mcnvk
Kuhfeld, M., Tarasawa, B., et al. (2020). Learning during COVID-19: Initial findings on students’ reading and math achievement and growth. NWEA. www.nwea.org/content/uploads/2020/11/Collaborative-brief-Learning-during-COVID-19.NOV2020.pdf
Lamarre, P., Horrocks, D. & Legault, E. (2020). The community school network in Quebec’s official language minority education sector. Concordia University. https://learnquebec.ca/clc-history
Maier, A., Daniel, J., & Oakes, J. (2017). Community schools as an effective school improvement strategy: A review of the evidence. Learning Policy Insitute/National Education Planning Centre. https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product-files/Community_Schools_Effective_BRIEF.pdf.
McCombs, J. S., Augustine, C. H., et al. (2019). Investing in successful summer programs: A review of evidence under the Every Student Succeeds Act. RAND Corporation. www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2836.html
Nickow, A., Oreopoulos, P., & Quan, V. (2020). The impressive effects of tutoring on PreK-12 learning: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the experimental evidence. (NBER Working Papers, Vol. 1 – Working Paper 27476). National Bureau of Economic Research.
OECD. (2020). Education policy outlook: France. www.oecd.org/education/policy-outlook/country-profile-France-2020.pdf
Renaissance Learning, Educational Policy Institute. (2021). Understanding progress in the 2020/21 academic year (p. 42). Department of Education. www.gov.uk/government/publications/pupils-progress-in-the-2020-to-2021-academic-year-interim-report
Rosenwald, F. (2021, November 29). The 2020 French school lockdown and its impact on education: What do we know so far? [Forum presentation]. OECD-AERA forum: How education fared during the first wave of COVID-19 lockdowns? International evidence, broadcast on Zoom. https://www.aera.net/Events-Meetings/How-Education-Fared-During-the-First-Wave-of-COVID-19-Lockdowns-International-Evidence
Spitzer, M. W . H., Musslick, S. (2021). Academic performance of K-12 students in an online-learning environment for mathematics increased during the shutdown of schools in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. PLOS ONE 16(8): e0255629. doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0255629