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.
From an ecological perspective inspired by Bronfenbrenner’s theory of human development, resilience can be defined as a process initiated by systems when they find themselves in the face of adversity (Ungar, 2018). This article examines the resilience of students during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on language resilience in a francophone minority context.
According to Ungar’s model (2018), each human being is a system in and of itself, while also being a constituent of other systems. A student is therefore a system interacting with others – their school, their community(ies), family, etc. It is by interacting with these systems that students construct themselves, build their sense of the world and participate in (re)producing other systems.
Resilience is a process that aims to return the individual system1 to wellness or well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed entire nations in a context of health adversity. We have seen how they have been able to mobilize various internal resources (financial means, knowledge, attitudes, capacities) and external resources (vaccines, knowledge, allies) within a network of international systems.
In the midst of this upheaval, families, parents, children, students, teachers and school administrators mobilized internal and external resources in a process of resilience that began with school closures and the creation of an “ad hoc” virtual school space. We have therefore been able to confirm the extent to which the school is not only a place of learning but also, in terms of supervising children, a concomitant system of family and social systems. Moreover, the role of schools in reducing social inequalities has been confirmed when family systems have taken on more responsibility for the schooling of children. On the one hand, for example, we saw the lower availability of Internet and computer equipment in low-income households or in those located far from the country’s urban centres. On the other hand, families with the necessary internal resources created “school cells” and hired a qualified teacher to ensure their children’s continued schooling, while the school system struggled to meet its teacher staffing needs and other children were doing minimal hours of virtual schooling, with or without adult supervision or support at home. This is reminiscent of the creation of playgroups by some parents to ensure the availability of a French-language space for their preschoolers in an Anglo-dominated setting, as well as the trend noted in research on school choice: only some families actively choose their children’s school. Thus, the mobilization of internal and external resources by a system, in this case a family system, depends largely on the availability, accessibility and relevance of such resources.
In a francophone minority context, it is also important to take into account accessibility to the French language during the pandemic and afterwards. We already know that in the most Anglo-dominated francophone and Acadian communities, the school is the only public space where the French language enjoys a higher official status than English, although the latter enjoys a very high social status in student interactions. This is the case, for example, in Halifax (Liboy and Patouma, 2021), Toronto (Heller, 1994; Heller, 2006) and Ontario more generally (Gérin-Lajoie, 2004), Manitoba (Cormier, 2020) and Vancouver (Levasseur, 2020). The introduction of the Civic Community School concept developed by FNCSF (Fédération nationale des conseils scolaires francophones) in 2011 and the identification of the sociolinguistic role of the education system as a major issue by AEFO (Association des enseignantes et enseignants franco-ontariens) in 2022 confirmed the centrality of the school for community language resilience in an Anglo-dominated context. Within the school, students find spaces for social interaction that are conducive to contextualized language production and reproduction. The closure of schools and community centres therefore placed young people in a context of language adversity.
The pandemic has had a significant impact on the mental health of adolescents (Vaillancourt et al., 2021), particularly because of the social isolation that has significantly reduced peer contact. Even when health measures have been relaxed to allow social distancing, young people in a minority setting may have encountered difficulties in getting together with their francophone friends if these friends were scattered over an area beyond the limits of their neighbourhood. Indeed, although some historical francophone or Acadian communities occupy a well-defined geographic space (the Brayon population of the City of Edmundston, the Acadian population of Pubnico or the Franco-Ontarian population of Hearst, for example), their lives are for the most part intertwined in a municipality with the lives of an English-speaking majority, thus diminishing the opportunities to communicate in French. Under such conditions, a decision becomes necessary with respect to mobilizing internal and external resources that can support language resilience in French.
Data was collected in various provinces: in Ontario and Prince Edward Island in conjunction with communications sent to various groups in the school system; in New Brunswick in connection with the research component of the Canadian Playful Schools Network; and in Nova Scotia as part of a Master’s thesis. The data shows that the closure of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant effect on the availability and accessibility of external and internal resources relevant to the language resilience of some young French speakers. In our conversations with teachers and parents in Ontario and Prince Edward Island, we heard that some children’s ability and motivation to speak French decreased during the pandemic. Teachers in some elementary school settings noted that a greater number of students who did not attend daycare because of the pandemic entered school with little or no knowledge of the French language. Teachers at one school were interviewed at the annual ACELF conference and estimated that 70 percent of students did not speak French when they arrived at school in September 2022.
Secondary school students had the habit of switching from English to French when in the vicinity of a teacher in the school hallways; after two years of interrupted copresence, however, this automatic reflex seems to have generally disappeared when students returned to the classroom. Teachers have reported that some students simply refuse to speak French in the classroom, even with staff. A Master’s study of three secondary school students in Nova Scotia informs us about the factors that may have contributed to such changes and describes how in-person school acts as a concurrent system supporting students’ language resilience process (Sutherland, 2022).
Three secondary school seniors from schools across Nova Scotia participated in individual online narrative conversations during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite distinct sociolinguistic profiles, each one testified to the importance of school for their language resilience (Sutherland, 2022). The in-school resources which they mobilized were (1) access to academic French in French courses, (2) legitimization of the local variety of French (Acadjonne) by certain staff members and (3) extracurricular activities. The French language school thus provides these students with three spaces in which various language resources and norms of communication in French can circulate: interaction in academic French, in Acadjonne and in the language of young people. Although Acadjonne was available to two of these students at home, with one of them speaking French closer to the academic standard with her parents, the pandemic greatly reduced their daily access to academic French and interactions with their peers in French.
When their schools were closed, students in French-language schools had access to a reduced number of classes. French classes were maintained, but accessibility to academic French was reduced as the trend shifted from participative education to lecture-style teaching. The individuals Sutherland met noted in particular the relevance of interaction in the French classroom to their access to academic language. Considering that, for two students, this linguistic variety was not legitimate within their family and community settings but was required for their legitimacy as francophones outside these environments, interactions in academic French proved to be a necessary resource for post-secondary language resilience for these students.
In addition, students testified to the importance of a French-language space, as their propensity to use the dominant language with their peers meant that, in the absence of school-organized extracurricular activities, they turned to social media to communicate with their friends. However, they used English mostly, if not exclusively, in the digital socialization space. For these individuals, the school closure during the pandemic entailed the loss of spaces of social interaction relevant to the production and contextualized language reproduction of the various forms of French.
However, unlike a growing number of young people living in a minority setting, those met by Sutherland had access to French-language resources in their families and in their respective communities. They were also among the young people who mobilized extracurricular school activities as a resource for their resilience in general and for their language resilience in particular. In Ontario, parents from a minority background but who use French at home and mobilize French language resources in their interactions with their children noted that their children spoke and read more frequently in French. This seems to have resulted in an improvement in their French vocabulary and a greater ability to move from a situation of translinguistic communication (i.e., the creative mobilization by bi-plurilingual persons of all their linguistic resources to create meaning and communicate a message) to a unilingual situation. Could it be that, by keeping their children away from a socialization space between young people where French is little used (the school hallways, for example), school closures contributed to these students’ linguistic resilience in French?
In a minority context, the surrounding society cannot ensure that students and their families will have sustained access to the language and linguistic resources distributed by the French-language school. Consequently, the French-language school offers great potential as an external resource for students’ language resilience. Under current conditions, it is not able to fully carry out this role in the context of a pandemic or e-learning. Moreover, some anecdotal data suggests that the French-language school contributes negatively to the language resilience of some students. Thus, there is still much to be learned about the interaction between the school and students’ other language ecology systems, and about the contribution of this interaction to short- and long-term language resilience.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
Cormier, G. (2020). School perspectives and definitions of linguistic identity in a minority environment: How do French-language schools respond to the needs of 21st century students faced with the many social, cultural and demographic changes underway? Éducation et francophonie, 48(1), 53-72. doi.org/10.7202/1070100ar
Gérin-Lajoie, D. (2004). La problématique identitaire et l’école de langue française en Ontario. Francophonies d’Amérique, (18), 171–179. doi.org/10.7202/1005360ar
Heller, M. (1994). Crosswords: Language, education, and ethnicity in French Ontario. Mouton de Gruyter.
Heller, M. (2006). Linguistic minorities and modernity: A sociolinguistic ethnography (2nd ed.). Continuum.
Levasseur, C. (2020). Being multilingual and Francophone: identity representations and positioning of francization students in Vancouver. Éducation et francophonie, 48(1), 93-121. doi.org/10.7202/1070102ar
Liboy, M.-G., & Patouma, J. (2021). L’école francophone en milieu minoritaire est-elle apte à intégrer les élèves immigrants et réfugiés récemment arrivés au pays? Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal, 53(2), 23-40.
Sutherland, H. (2022). De l’insécurité linguistique à la résilience linguistique : le rôle de l’école de langue française dans la formation de la résilience linguistique des adolescents. [Master’s thesis, University of Ottawa]. ResearchuO. https://ruor.uottawa.ca/handle/10393/43860
Vaillancourt, T., Beauchamp, M., et al. (2021). Children and schools during COVID-19 and beyond: Engagement and connection through opportunity. Royal Society of Canada. https://rsc-src.ca/sites/default/files/C%26S%20PB_EN.pdf
Ungar, M. (2018). Systemic resilience: Principles and processes for a science of change in contexts of adversity. Ecology and Society, 23(4). doi.org/10.5751/ES-10385-230434
First published in Education Canada, April 2023
1 Gauvin-Lepage and Lefebvre (2010) focus their research on family resilience. In this context, internal resources belong to the family while external resources are located in the systems around them.