Hamilton·Schools Under Stress

Students have fallen behind during the pandemic, teachers say, and some may never catch up

A CBC News questionnaire of local educators highlighted concerns about how the pandemic has affected students' ability to learn and connect with school. Students, unions, school boards and experts weigh in.

Roughly 70% of 684 local educators in a CBC News questionnaire say some kids won't catch up academically

A person wearing a backpack.
Educators from Hamilton, Halton, Niagara and Brantford say they're concerned about students falling behind in school during the pandemic. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

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. Read more stories in this series here.

Anna Hulskramer says online learning hasn't been easy for her kids.

Her 13-year-old son, Nathan Filmore and 14-year-old daughter, Emily Parsons, are in Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board (HWCDSB) and say they've struggled.

"I got an email from my son's teacher which stated he was behind on 15 different assignments ... Emily, she's failing her English [class] with a 33 per cent," Hulskramer said.

"I thought Grade 9 was going to be a good year," Emily said. "But no."

A new exclusive questionnaire with responses from hundreds of local educators shows their situation isn't unusual.

CBC News sent the questions to thousands of education professionals to find out how they and their students are doing in this extraordinary school year. Nearly 9,500 responded.

The HWCDSB wasn't surveyed, but Hulskramer's experience resembles what others in local school boards are facing.

Some 70 per cent of 684 school staff from school boards in Hamilton, Halton, Niagara and Brantford think some students won't catch up academically.

Schools Under Stress

Today: The academic impact on Hamilton-area students

Tuesday: The impact on student and teacher mental health

Wednesday: Vaccines and their future in the school system

Roughly 77 per cent of educators polled also said they weren't on track to finish teaching the required curriculum, and 61 per cent said fewer students were meeting learning needs compared to past years.

The results follow months of constant jumps between in-person learning and remote learning. Most students in the region haven't been inside a classroom since the April break. Some haven't seen a classroom for 14 months.

Students and teachers falling behind

Nathan, in Grade 7, said his computer struggles to run school programs because of internet issues. He added he barely hears from friends anymore.

Emily, in Grade 9, said she has heard from friends and they're also falling behind. She said her teachers have missed entire units in math, English and science.

Bailey Patterson has a daughter in Grade 8 and son in senior kindergarten in Niagara. She said she worries their social skills will suffer because of online learning, and is especially worried about her son.

"I don't feel like he's learning what he needs to learn to be successful in Grade 1," she said.

Cindy Gage, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation bargaining unit president for Halton teachers, said it's been hard for teachers too.

She said despite the number of students passing and failing this year not changing much from last year, educators have missed parts of the curriculum and couldn't teach in the same fulsome way they usually would face-to-face.

"Many grades, and grading and feedback, given to students was with a healthy dose of compassion and understanding," Gage said.

Some educators said they didn't feel supported by their school boards and the province.

(CBC News)

"The flip flopping teachers have had to do has caused an incredible amount of stress," one said in a comment.

"The creation of in class material to online interactive material takes hours and hours of time. I'm not sure when the government ever expected this to happen unless it was on our own time in the evenings and on weekends. Which is what's happened. The disappointment and anger from teachers about how this has been handled is very real."

One educator said they spent more than $1,000 of their own money on a new computer and other materials to teach kids remotely.

"This year has been extremely emotionally and mentally draining on teachers ... No training, no money, no guidance was given to us."

Some online students are cheating, missing class

Of the teachers questioned, 69 per cent said some students have stopped attending class altogether and 67 per cent were concerned students learning online were cheating.

Hulskramer said the stats on cheating hit close to home.

Nathan Filmore, 13, and Emily Parsons, 14, have both struggled doing remote learning in Hamilton. Nathan was behind on more than a dozen assignments and Emily failed a course. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Emily was in an online chatroom with classmates where they would share answers during tests. Hulskramer said they got caught and failed the test.

But Emily said others are still cheating using Snapchat group chats.

"Every time they had a test, they would all cheat on it," she said.

While some students have thrived and haven't cheated, Jeff Sorensen, Hamilton-Wentworth Elementary Teachers' Local union president, said the questionnaire results show online learning can't provide a quality education for all students.

"We see a lot of absences. We see a lot of black rectangles [on screens] ... and we know students aren't listening," he said. "They're probably in another room playing video games. It's hard for me to blame kids for that though."

Sorensen also said he's concerned about how this affects students from equity-seeking communities.

But he's also optimistic students will be able to catch up and said he knows teachers will work hard to help them.

Prioritizing parts of curriculum is key: school board directors

Halton District School Board director Stuart Miller said while some students have done well and others may not need a lot of catching up to do, he believes there will be gaps in learning, achievement and socialization.

"I'm concerned in particular with our younger students around literacy and numeracy. There may be gaps that take some time ... a lot of our work next year will be focused on that. How big those gaps are? I don't know."

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board director Manny Figueiredo said it'll be key to prioritize various parts of the curriculum, especially because students may be too worn out to learn in the summer.

Manny Figueiredo is the HWDSB director of education. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

"It's going to force us to look at what is the critical content we have to cover," he said. "Another thing our board is looking at ... how can we try to lower class sizes in elementary so teachers can provide a little more personal attention?"

The Grand Erie District School Board declined interview requests, but said in a statement it recognized it's been a challenging year. The District School Board of Niagara declined requests for comment, and Halton Catholic District School Board also didn't respond to requests for comment. 

Experts say it's time to rethink education system

Louis Volante, a Brock University educational studies professor and president of the Canadian Educational Researchers' Association, said the poll results align with the rest of the world.

"The academic losses are significant. We're seeing in some of the research on learning loss from different parts of the world it can be 15, 20 per cent in math ... in reading," he said.

Dr. Jean Clinton, a psychiatrist and McMaster University clinical professor in the psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences department, said the poll results show school boards are putting too much pressure on educators to teach as much of the curriculum as possible instead of focusing on essentials.

Dr. Jean Clinton, a psychiatrist and McMaster University clinical professor in the psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences department. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

She said it's time to revise the education system, and says she's speaking with Ontario's education minister about it this week.

"We're looking at kids' academic achievement for sure but in ways they get excited about their learning that they wouldn't even think about cheating ... but also has a big focus on social and emotional well-being," Clinton said.

WATCH: Education expert explains how student learning can evolve

Education expert explains how student learning can evolve

2 years ago
Duration 2:13
Louis Volante, a Brock University educational studies professor and the Canadian Educational Researchers' Association president, said the pandemic has opened up an opportunity to rethink how we teach and evaluate students.

Volante also said it's time to rethink how educators teach. 

While school boards shouldn't abandon traditional teaching methods, he said there needs to be more authentic, preformative evaluations, like playing instruments in music and playing sports in physical education

"There is an opportunity. It does require a little bit more preparation to teach from that perspective and the marking can be more onerous," he said.

"Students still need to know how to write a test, if for no other reason than that's what they're going to experience in college and university ... But I think it's a question of balance."

About the questionnaire

The questionnaire was sent 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.

The provinces and school districts were chosen 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)

Attention parents, students and teachers: We want to hear from you!

We hope you'll use this form to tell us about school conditions, how classes are going or whatever other pressing issues are on your mind in Hamilton, Niagara, St. Catharines and Burlington.


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.