Manitoba

Students falling behind since COVID-19 closed Manitoba schools last year

Some Manitoba students have fallen behind in literacy and numeracy skills one year after schools shut down last March because of the COVID-19 pandemic according to school officials and education experts.

Tuesday marks 1 year since Manitoba schools first closed due to the pandemic

Mary Constable teaches her grade 3/4 class at Arthur E. Wright Community School in Winnipeg. Educators say early learning students have fallen behind in math and literacy skills since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but Constable said her focus has been on helping kids cope with change. (John Einarson)

Some Manitoba students have fallen behind in literacy and numeracy skills one year after schools shut down last March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to school officials and education experts.

"I think schools have done remarkably well given the circumstances," said Seven Oaks School Division Superintendent Brian O'Leary.

While he could not provide data, O'Leary said the early years students were impacted the most by the school closures.

"I think it's really affected our younger kids and our most vulnerable kids the most," he said. "Some of the kids in remote learning and home-schooling have missed an awful lot."

"In some cases teachers have dropped a unit from the course and shuffled expectations."

The Louis Riel School Division said remote learning participation dropped for students in grades 1 to 8 last spring. It says 58 per cent consistently participated, while 10 per cent rarely or never participated in remote classes.

While the division says math and literacy skills weren't affected, it did report a drop in French literacy skills for early years immersion students.

'Helping children cope with change'

One elementary school teacher said her focus was teaching students how to meditate and stay calm over the past year, and not so much on homework.

"We did a lot of meditation and a lot of yoga and affirmations to help ourselves remember where we are in such uncertain times," said Mary Constable, a grade 3/4 teacher at Arthur E. Wright Community School.

"My priorities were to first ensure that the children felt a sense of normalcy," she said. 

Mary Constable is a grade 3/4 teacher at Arthur E. Wright Community School in Winnipeg who said her focus has been on helping students cope with change during the pandemic and not their report card. (John Einarson)

For Constable, the well-being of students was a priority.

"Healthy mind, healthy body, healthy heart is our mantra in our school and so that was something I really wanted to hone in on before looking at everyone's needs academically," said Constable. 

"We have to remember it's not just teaching that we're doing anymore. It's helping children cope with change."

Literacy kits to support students

The Pembina Trails School Division said it tracked literacy skills among students in grades 1 to 3 last spring, and the data showed a 1.7 per cent achievement drop in literacy from the previous year.

"The school division recently invested in Leveled Literacy Intervention kits, accessed through provincial COVID-19 funding. This additional resource will soon be used to support students in our K-8 schools," said Pembina Trails School Division spokesperson Stacey Ashley in an email to CBC.

Challenging time in Manitoba schools

7 months ago
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Some Manitoba students have fallen behind in literacy and numeracy skills one year after schools shut down last March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to school officials and education experts. 2:22

The Winnipeg School Division did not have data on how the pandemic impacted early years students last spring, but said students who are in the classroom with their teacher are continuing to do well and achieving gains across all subject areas. 

O'Leary said wearing masks and physically distancing in schools has also been challenging for the younger children.

"A lot of kids with speech difficulties need to see the teacher's mouth move, as well as the language classes, they need to see the teacher's mouths move," O'Leary said.

'Learning impact is going to be lifelong'

"We've essentially lost a year," said Sheri-Lynn Skwarchuk, an early learning education professor and researcher at the University of Winnipeg.

A new study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said learning during school closures for the first half of 2020 was "almost non-existent" for many schools around the world. 

"There's been not that much research in terms of COVID-19 in terms of the impacts, but the OECD has put out a report that says the learning impact is going to be lifelong for this cohort," Skwarchuk said.

But she said it's not too late for young students to catch up.

"So if you're concerned about their reading, then they need to practise reading. If you're concerned about numeracy skills, they need to practise their numeracy skills.

"You can't just send somebody up to their bedroom and tell them to do their homework because you don't know what they are doing in there."

Skwarchuk said children from ages four to seven are just learning to develop social skills, and the lost time inside the classroom is precious.

O'Leary said all students had to endure heartache since the pandemic began, with the loss of team sports, pep rallies, Christmas concerts and graduation dances.

"The good thing with young kids is they are resilient," O'Leary said. "Hopefully we could get a return to some greater normalcy before the end of the year."

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