Students’ recovery requires extraordinary effort

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As COVID-19 recedes into hindsight (we hope!), I wonder what might be in store for the upcoming school year.

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Opinion

As COVID-19 recedes into hindsight (we hope!), I wonder what might be in store for the upcoming school year.

Online “learning,” we now know, was a disaster. While it slowed the spread of COVID-19 for a while, it also slowed student learning. The online classroom left most children and youth feeling frustrated and disengaged.

As a university instructor, I know how it feels to speak into a computer screen for an entire class. Cameras are blacked out. A student might appear to be in class – they are logged in – but she is unresponsive when called upon for the class discussion.

Occasionally, a student unmutes himself, but instead of a question or comment about the course material, all I hear is The Simpsons playing in the background. I am not surprised.

It is well documented that students have fallen behind over the past two years. One study showed the reading comprehension skills of kindergarten and Grade 1 children improved at a rate 31 per cent less than usual.

Middle school students have reported being lonely, anxious or depressed at alarming rates. Most have not had the chance to participate in the music and sports programs that usually get started in Grade 7 and which contribute to their sense of belonging in school.

High school students are entering post-secondary institutions without a solid foundation in reading comprehension and math.

The COVID-19 school lockdowns no doubt hurt the students. There were many trade-offs built into public-health decisions. Young people, most of whom were not at risk of serious harm from COVID-19, bore the brunt of the social cost of lockdowns.

But the problem in Manitoba is worse than even the past two years suggest. Before the pandemic hit, the province of Manitoba ranked dead last in education within Canada. Between 2003 and 2018, Manitoba fell a full year behind other provinces in learning outcomes.

As a parent as well as an educator within Manitoba, I wonder why our province is lagging behind the rest of the country. There must be many reasons for this.

It may be economic: schools in northern Manitoba, as well as many within the Winnipeg School Division, often serve economically disadvantaged families, and providing basic resources such as school meals may prove to be a simple yet effective way of improving students’ learning potential.

Other reasons for this national disparity may be more curriculum based: Manitoba has gone without provincial exams for Grade 12 students since the pandemic shifted schools online. But now that the students are back in class, the province has announced that it will permanently discontinue Grade 12 provincial exams, arguing both that the exams cause too much anxiety for graduating students, and that if students perform poorly, it is too late to intervene and correct their weaker areas of learning.

Of course, it could be argued that if there aren’t rigorous tests at the end of Grade 12, students may not work as diligently as they otherwise might in their effort to meet the expectations of provincial exams — exams that align with standards across the rest of Canada, not to mention the rest of world, which is becoming increasingly globalized and competitive.

Students are many things: curious, hard working, rebellious, funny, lazy, gifted, bored and enthusiastic. But above all, students are one thing: surprising. Students will blow your expectations out of the water, the good and the bad.

We might think students will become stressed and anxious if they’re subjected to the pressure cooker of Grade 12 provincial exams, and as educators we may feel we’re doing them a service by protecting them from the rigidity of a standardized testing system. Then again, students may just surprise us by rising to the occasion.

One thing is certain: the worst thing we can teach our students is that we have low expectations of them.

Our students might pass their grade each year, but we are still failing them. I know educators faced burnout over the last two years; classroom teachers had to perform some dizzying logistical gymnastics to comply with the ever-changing health requirements.

They worked incredibly hard. Every one of them should be given a crate of champagne from us taxpayers. They deserve it.

But they should also be given a bucket of coffee, because they’ve got a lot of work to do. In Manitoba, I don’t want the ordinary back-to-school routine. Our students need school to be extraordinary.

Marilyn Simon is a professor in the English department at University of Winnipeg.

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