It is now increasingly clear that the school closures that began in the spring of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic have had and continue to have a significant impact on school environments and everyone within them. UNESCO (2022) estimates that more than 1.5 billion young people have been affected by the COVID-19-related education crisis. This crisis has apparently further weakened education systems that were already vulnerable, due in part to such factors as staff shortages, the unsatisfactory quality of teaching and learning, or inequalities related to gender, ethnic origin, language, socio-economic status or disabilities (UNICEF, 2015). Although the effects of this crisis are beginning to be understood, more research and field data are needed to better understand them and to better guide reconstruction efforts (Donnelly and Patrinos, 2022).
The overall goal of our study, conducted by the UNESCO Chair in Curriculum Development (UCCD) in partnership with the Ministère de l’Éducation du Québec (MEQ), was to improve our understanding of the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on school environments in Quebec. Specifically, the project aimed to describe the impact of COVID-19 on: 1) school organization and facilities; 2) students; and 3) teachers. In this article, we will focus on teachers’ perceptions of the negative effects that COVID-19 has had on their students.
Where does our data come from?
Conducted in two phases with elementary and secondary teachers from three school service centres (SSCs), our mixed-method study sought to measure changes in the effects of COVID-19 on various dimensions. Nearly 500 teachers responded to an online survey in the fall of 2020, and nearly 350 did so in the spring of 2021. Among these respondents, there were also volunteers who took part in semi-structured interviews in the spring of 2021 to further explore some of the issues addressed in the questionnaires.
The questionnaires asked teachers to rate the situation at their school, first for the beginning of the school year (for fall data collection) and then for the second half of the school year (for spring data collection). At both times, teachers quantitatively assessed, among other things, the extent to which COVID-19 had negatively impacted their students, specifically their learning, autonomy, collaboration, problem-solving skills, attentiveness, and organizational capability.
The quantitative results thus obtained were supported by qualitative data. For the fall of 2020, this support came from the responses to an open-ended question in the online survey, where teachers were asked to name the three most significant areas in which COVID-19 had negatively affected their students. For the spring of 2021, the qualitative data consisted of the points raised by teachers participating in the interviews.
Key negative effects of COVID-19 on students according to teachers
In general, we noted that elementary school teachers perceived greater effects on subject-specific competencies (French, mathematics, science, etc.), while secondary school teachers perceived greater negative effects on academic competencies (skills related to the role of student: attention, organization, problem-solving, etc.). When asked in an open-ended question to name the aspects most impacted by COVID-19, respondents mentioned most often the social aspect for the elementary school level, followed by attentiveness and reading, whereas for the secondary school level, motivation, participation, attentiveness, and the social aspect were mentioned most frequently.
In the fall, the three learning areas most affected by COVID-19 in elementary schools were student achievement in grammar, writing, physical education, and health (Figure 1). Based on teachers’ perceptions, it would appear that the gap between the strongest students and those students who had some prior difficulties widened between school closures and the resumption in the fall of 2020. In connection with the effects on students’ grammar and writing levels, teachers pointed out, in response to the open question of the questionnaire, that these difficulties were particularly significant for a number of allophone students who had potentially missed opportunities to develop their French skills during the lockdown. As for the problems experienced by very young children in physical education and health, some difficulties related to fine motor skills were observed.
In the spring, the top three learning areas most affected by COVID-19 according to elementary teachers were students’ attentiveness, problem-solving ability, and grammar levels (Figure 2). With respect to students’ attentiveness, teachers mentioned that students seemed to have difficulties with their role as students, including the ability to pay attention both in the classroom and remotely, and the ability to solve academic and socioemotional problems. Concerning grammar difficulties, as in the responses to the fall questionnaire, elementary teachers mentioned in the spring interviews that difficulties in French were particularly significant for allophone students.
In the fall, secondary school teachers reported negative effects primarily on their students’ attentiveness, organization, and problem-solving ability (Figure 3). It is interesting to note that the effects on learning in the subject area taught by the respondents were relatively small (it was only the seventh most named learning area). In terms of attentiveness and organization, the responses to the open-ended question in the questionnaire indicated that these difficulties were experienced primarily in distance learning, since intervening was more difficult online than in the classroom, but they also occurred at school. There were more distractions online, and this made keeping students’ attention a challenge for teachers. In the classroom, the irregular school organization (schedules, classroom bubbles, travel, school materials, digital learning platforms and tools, etc.) that resulted from compliance with the health measures in force proved difficult to follow for a number of students. In terms of problem-solving, teachers noted that this was a major difficulty for students in mathematics.
In the spring, the top two negative effects of COVID-19 on students perceived by teachers still concerned their attentiveness and organization skills, followed by their autonomy and their level in the discipline being taught (Figure 4). Like their elementary school colleagues, secondary school teachers noted in the interviews that they had observed a greater effect of COVID-19 on students who were already struggling pre-pandemic, as well as large differences in adjustment between the strongest and struggling students upon returning to school. Secondary school teachers mentioned in the interviews that many students had little support at home, and that hybrid1 instruction would most likely further widen the gap between strong students, who would succeed in any case, and students more at risk of failure, for whom the risk would increase. It was also noted that student achievement in the subject being taught rose to the rank of fourth highest key negative effect of COVID-19. We can assume that students and teachers alike eventually felt the impact of the various delays that occurred both during the school closure and throughout the school year when the subject content had to be scaled back “to the essentials.”2
Before concluding, we need to mention that, like any study, this one has its limitations. First, as with the vast majority of studies on the effects of COVID-19 in both the educational and other fields, it is impossible to establish a pre-pandemic picture of the study population. It is therefore difficult to determine what is specifically the impact of COVID-19 and what is the result of prior situations or influences. Second, although our sample included several hundred students and teachers, it represented only a small proportion of the study population. Furthermore, the questionnaire respondents and interview volunteers may have been those teachers who had the most to say about the situation or who had experienced more difficulty than others in this particular school year.
Rebuilding schools and keeping the focus on students
Although the negative effects of COVID-19 on students as perceived by teachers are relatively significant, it was noted in both the questionnaires and the interviews that 100 percent of participating teachers emphasized the high resilience of students during the 2020-2021 school year. Many also mentioned that the student support measures (Conseil supérieur de l’éducation, 2021) had been very helpful. In addition, and interestingly, the students felt that the impact of COVID-19 on their learning was rather weak, whereas, as we have shown, the teachers had the perception that these effects were quite significant. This raises the question: did students underestimate the effects of COVID-19 or did teachers overestimate them? The reality probably lies somewhere in between. Regarding the teachers’ perceptions, it should be noted that the usual stresses associated with the teaching profession (Eblie Trudel et al., 2021), in addition to those associated with the pandemic, the health measures, and disruptions in school organization during the 2020-2021 year may have influenced their representation of the effects of COVID-19 on their students.
Since we do not know the long-term effects of COVID-19 on students, it is important to continue research on Quebec schools in order to support and equip them as they rebuild. Moreover, it is essential that teachers and other school staff working with students be adequately trained to support and assist these students in the short, medium and long terms, for example, in the areas of bereavement, stress and trauma counselling, school-family collaboration, and counselling for students with various difficulties (Müller & Goldenberg, 2020).
This project was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and the Ministère de l’Éducation du Québec, under the Partnership Engage: COVID-19 Special Initiative program.
This article was written by Marion Deslandes Martineau, Patrick Charland, Yannick Skelling-Desmeules, Olivier Arvisais, and Marie-Hélène Bruyère. The authors would like to thank the partners of the Ministère de l’Éducation and the school service centres involved, as well as their colleagues, co-researchers and collaborators in the study: Jonathan Bluteau, Isabelle Plante, Isabelle Gauvin, Stéphane Cyr, Tegwen Gadais, Éric Dion, Joanna Trees Merckx, and Jay S. Kaufman.
Conseil supérieur de l’éducation. (2021). Returning to normal? Overcoming vulnerabilities in an education system responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Le Conseil. www.cse.gouv.qc.ca/en/rebe20-21-covid
Donnelly, R., and Patrinos, H. A. (2022). Learning loss during Covid-19: An early systematic review. PROSPECTS, 51(4), 601609. doi.org/10.1007/s11125-021-09582-6
Eblie Trudel, L., Sokal, L., and Babb, J. (2021). Teachers’ voices: Pandemic lessons for the future of education. Journal of Teaching and Learning, 15(1), 4–19. doi.org/10.22329/jtl.v15i1.6486
Müller, L.-M., and Goldenberg, G. (2020, July 5). Education in times of crisis: The potential implications of school closures for teachers and students. Chartered College of Teaching. https://my.chartered.college/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/CCTReport070520_FINAL.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0t62tROapzSQv28ofnIVc3AhE44UuFTP19dg6_V0-o7y8NqAFkEawAWZ8
UNESCO. (2022). Education: from school closure to recovery. UNESCO. www.unesco.org/en/covid-19/education-response
UNICEF. (2015, January 19). The investment case for education and equity. UNICEF, Education Section.
First published in Education Canada, April 2023
1 Hybrid teaching consists of teaching that is sometimes done remotely and sometimes in the classroom. For much of the 2020-2021 school year, this was the schedule that was imposed on students in the upper secondary level (i.e., students aged 14-17).
2 Lists of essential knowledge to focus on in each discipline have been made available by the Ministère de l’Éducation, to the detriment of other concepts normally included in the curriculum.