Calgary educators concerned students are falling behind, cheating more during pandemic
'We've been struggling to get through all of the curricular outcomes'
This story is part of a CBC News series examining the stresses the pandemic has placed on educators and the school system. For the series, CBC News sent a questionnaire to thousands of education professionals to find out how they and their students are doing in this extraordinary school year. Nearly 9,500 educators responded. More than 2,100 of them were from the Calgary area. Read more stories in this series here.
Teachers have had to take on more responsibilities than ever before — from enforcing COVID-19 health protocols to adapting to online teaching — but when it comes to getting through the curriculum, many Calgary area teachers say this year has been a slog.
"We're definitely not on track. We've been struggling to get through all of the curricular outcomes. Students who normally perform really well are struggling," said Peter Zajiczek, who teaches math at Western Canada High School.
He said problems adjusting to online teaching or keeping up with all the demands of the new situation could be causing them to struggle.
"I think a lot of them are, and I think a lot of teachers are really focusing on just getting the fundamental basics."
As part of a cross-country project, CBC News recently sent a questionnaire to the public email addresses of approximately 9,000 school staffers in Calgary and surrounding area. Of those who responded, more than 1,800 were teachers from the Calgary Board of Education (CBE), Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) and Rocky View School Division.
Falling behind in the curriculum
Around 65 per cent of respondents who identified as teachers say they are behind in the curriculum, and around 60 per cent of respondents said that fewer students are meeting learning objectives.
Prunella David, an online health and physical education elementary school teacher for the Catholic District, said for her, it's a struggle to make sure students are actually doing assignments when they're supposed to, especially when they are assigned to go do an activity for their gym class.
"When the kids come to class I assign them activities or we chat about what they can do, and then they go do it on their own. But are they actually doing it? I'm not really sure," she said.
More than three-quarters of those who responded to the questionnaire worry some students won't catch up academically.
'They'll catch up'
Early childhood education expert Cynthia Prasow, with the University of Calgary's Werklund School of Education, said it's impossible to know right now where the gaps are in student learning. But, she said it doesn't worry her that much.
"Developmentally, all children don't develop and reach the same benchmarks at the same time. So I don't find that a concern at all.… I think they will catch up," she said.
Bryan Szumlas, chief superintendent for CCSD, said that while he understands some people might be concerned that students are falling behind, teachers are trained and able to deal with those situations.
"Students come to us with very varying levels of competency in the curriculum. You're going to have some students that come to us that are excelling and doing really well and the other students that are struggling in school. And it's our job to program accordingly," he said.
What does give him a bit of concern is the number of students who did not enrol in kindergarten as expected. It's similar to what the CBE reported in December.
"Perhaps there's going to be some significant learning loss for those individuals," he said.
"I know the kindergarten, of course, is not mandatory [in Alberta], but that is where the children are given that opportunity for socialization, connecting with their peers, learning about routines," she said. "Those things they would be missing out."
Kindergarten isn't the only grade seeing more absences, though. Of the school leaders who responded to the questionnaire, around 85 per cent say there are more students absent than before, and around two-thirds of teachers agree that some students have stopped attending class altogether.
Cheating on the rise
With the yo-yoing back and forth between in-person learning and online learning that has taken place in Alberta, teachers say it's brought another concerning trend to the forefront: cheating.
"It's definitely increased a lot. We're seeing a lot of kids using apps like Photomath for math teachers. There's a lot of worry about kids sharing exams or quiz questions when they're at home because we can't monitor them all," said Zajiczek.
More than a quarter of teachers who responded to the questionnaire say they are very concerned that students who are working online might be cheating, and about 35 per cent say they're somewhat concerned.
Sarah Elaine Eaton, associate professor at the University of Calgary studies academic misconduct, and will be presenting some of her findings at the upcoming Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.
She said one of the main issues that is arising is predatory companies that offer services to students that they claim to be for tutoring.
"Which ends up going into the realm of misconduct, of doing their assignments for them, or even in some cases, students or the parents can hire impersonators to take tests and exams on behalf of the students," she said.
"We know that these companies are marketing in Canada and we know that they're marketing to students at least as young as Grade 6 and maybe even younger."
Opportunity to reassess student assessments
Eaton said this is an opportunity to talk to students about the importance of digital citizenship.
"When these companies get information about our young people, they know everything about them. They know their email addresses, their school, what city they're in — all of that," she said. "And so there's an element of teaching young people about protecting themselves from companies that will continue to track them through the rest of their they're learning."
Eaton said it's also an opportunity for educators to think about how they're assessing students.
"We may not be able to get rid of the test altogether, but rethinking, 'how do we do it?' Because we're still testing in the ways that we did in the 20th century. But the kids are learning in the 21st century, and we have to catch up to them."
Despite challenges, nearly 65 per cent of teachers who responded to the questionnaire say there are some benefits to learning online.
Ernest Manning High School teacher Lea Marinelli said one amazing opportunity that COVID has presented is the ability to bring in virtual guest speakers.
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"I have contacts in Rwanda that have shared their experience with the Rwandan genocide. I have contacts in the UK and in the United States that when George Floyd was killed, they shared their anti-racist message and their experience as marginalized communities and people of colour with my students," she said.
"If COVID had never happened, those virtual experiences would not be afforded to those students. So in a way, it bridged the gap for learning in some ways."
CBC sent the questionnaire to 52,351 email addresses of school workers in eight different provinces, across nearly 200 school districts. Email addresses were scraped from school websites that publicly listed them. The questionnaire was sent using SurveyMonkey.
CBC chose provinces and school districts based on interest by regional CBC bureaus and availability of email addresses. As such, this questionnaire is not a representative survey of educators in Canada. None of the questions were mandatory, and not all respondents answered all of the questions.
(Data analysis: Roberto Rocha and Dexter McMillan)