Calgary

The kids are (mostly) alright: Lessons learned in Calgary public schools during the pandemic

The kids are alright: Reflecting on the year of education in Calgary during the COVID-19 pandemic

Majority of students involved in research project are coping with the stress and uncertainty of COVID-19

Calgary parent Tamara Rose reads with her daughter, Scarlett, outside. (Submitted by Tamara Rose)

Just over a year ago, the lives of students across the province were thrown into chaos when kindergarten to Grade 12 classes were cancelled indefinitely due to the global pandemic. 

At the same time that many sports and extracurricular activities were put on hold, Calgary school divisions began contemplating online learning, and days of uncertainty followed.

Since then a lot has changed for Calgary students, families and educators when it comes to learning — whether online or in-person. But, through it all, they've largely figured it out and adapted. 

Grade 11 Father Lacombe student Maytee Negash said she remembers feeling confused in March 2020 when classes were first cancelled. 

"It was very uncertain. At first, it was kind of like, 'this is going to be maybe, like, two weeks and you're back in the classroom,'" she said.

"Then it turned into, 'I don't think we're going to be going back until September,' and even in the summer, it's like, 'Are we even going to be going back?" 

Grade 11 Father Lacombe student Maytee Negash says one lesson the pandemic has taught her is not to take opportunities for granted. (Submitted by Maytee Negash)

They did go back. 

In the fall, both of Calgary's public school boards began offering in-person classes and an online option with the launch of the Calgary Board of Education's Hub online learning, and Calgary Catholic School District's St. Isadore.

With the popularity of St. Isadore, which has 6,000 students registered in grades 1 to 9 (an online option already existed for high school students) the CCSD announced in February that it would continue to offer online learning in future school years. 

"Prior to the pandemic, almost all teaching and learning was done face-to-face in a classroom. We know that that's on one side of the pendulum," said chief superintendent Bryan Szumlas.

"On the other side of the pendulum is online learning, or using that technology, and I think we're going to be landing somewhere in the middle."

Tamara Rose's daughter Scarlett, who is in Grade 2, was one of 21,000 students who initially chose the CBE's HUB option.It was a huge learning curve for the single mother. 

"I thought I had it under control with being able to work and do her school and, you know, be a mom and do all the stuff at home, too. But I can say right now that things have had to give," she said.

"My work is coming first and then spending time with her as a child to a parent is also very important. And then we're getting what we can get done with the school."

Rose said the one-on-one time between her and Scarlett has brought a lot of positives, too.

"We were able to address a bunch of different issues that Scarlett was having through our family doctor. Ultimately, she was diagnosed with a learning disability," she said. 

"I'm not entirely confident that that would have happened if she had been in the schoolroom setting."

CBE Chief Superintendent Chris Usih. (CBC)

The CBE said they understand the balancing act parents, students and staff have undertaken over the last year. 

"There was no blueprint for teaching and learning during a pandemic," said chief superintendent Christopher Usih. 

Since last March, he said there have been more than 40,000 instances at the CBE of students or teachers isolating because of COVID-19 exposure at school.

"That disruption of students going back online and back to in-person continues to be an adjustment for our students and families," he said. 

Usih said for him, the big takeaway from this past year is how students, families and staff have stepped up. 

"I really commend the way we've come together as a community to continue to support learning," he said.

"That's why, quite frankly, today in the middle of March, we're still dealing with cases as they come up in some of our schools — but learning is continuing."

The pandemic also gave school boards the unique opportunity to work with a University of Calgary researcher who is studying student wellness during a pandemic by asking how students are feeling at four different periods of time and assessing the impacts on social lives, educational experiences and mental health.

Leading the study is Kelly Schwartz, associate professor and psychologist in the U of C's Werklund School of Education. 

"What's their views on the COVID experience in terms of health and social distancing and quarantining and stuff like that?"

The same group of 1,700 students, ages 12 to 18, from all four of Alberta's major metro school divisions have already been surveyed three times for the project — once in September following the return to school, once in December when classes moved online again, with the third set of surveys currently being collected. 

 A fourth wave of data collection will be done at the end of the school year.

University of Calgary associate professor Kelly Schwartz. (University of Calgary)

Participating students fill out a survey which asks students to respond to specific questions related to their stress reaction to COVID-19, if they're concerned about it and if it's impacted their sleep and other physiological experiences.

It also asks them questions related to their mental health, including how sad or worried they feel and questions about how they're adapting to life during a pandemic and where they feel most supported. 

"Seventy to 75 per cent of students in our sample are saying that they're coping OK with this. They're adjusting. They're adapting to this," said Schwartz. "Our message is that the majority of students are coping well, but there is about a quarter of the students in our sample who are who are not doing as well."

Schwartz said data is showing some interesting age and gender differences.

"Females aged 15 to 18 were reporting stress in the critical levels, more so than than males and younger youth," he said. 

Findings that are in line with the CBE's own student survey data collected earlier this school year, which found Grade 11 girls are reporting the highest levels of anxiety and depression

Schwartz said overall, the data is telling us kids are adapting to things quite nicely. 

"When you consider how many times they've had this significant social and educational change happen to them over the last year, it's pretty remarkable that they're doing as well as they are," he said. 

"These are not small changes that they've had to adapt to, so we're quite encouraged that both from a clinical and a developmental perspective, that they're adjusting and adapting about as well as we can expect them to." 

Usih said it's something he's learned too. 

"The key learning for us is the resiliency that our students and staff have been demonstrated," he said. 

And when it comes to any potential learning gaps, both the CBE and CCSD say they're ready to work with students, families and staff to address them next year. 

"That's no different than any year because teachers are professionals and part of their job is to assess where students are at, and prior to COVID-19 we had students coming to Calgary from all around the world so there has always been that diversity in our classrooms," said Szumlas.

Grade 12 John G. Diefenbaker student Siraaj Shah said this year taught him about his own resiliency.

Grade 12 John G. Diefenbaker high school student Siraaj Shah says the circumstances of the pandemic pushed him to help start a COVID-19 student advocacy group. (Submitted by Siraaj Shah)

"As a student highly involved in my school, I felt like I learned that I respond to change quite nicely. Having the pandemic on my hands, both online and in person at school forced me to become a better person simply because I had to learn to think out of the box because there were so many restrictions on some of the work that we could do," he said. 

He said one of the things he's most proud of this year is working with other students to start the Flatten The Curve student advocacy group.

"We did it all completely virtually. We never met in person and yet we were able to make policy change on a city and provincial basis."

Nagesh says looking back now at the last year, she's learned a lot about herself both as a learner and a student. 

"I, 100 per cent, cannot learn from my home... I have to be in a classroom environment to learn well," she said. 

"And, don't take things for granted. Even last year before the pandemic I didn't take advantage of opportunities, I would say 'oh maybe next time,' so I need to put myself out there."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to education in Alberta. In 2018 she headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alta. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson

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