New Brunswick

More than 1,300 N.B. students not reached by schools during pandemic

At least 1,300 students weren't reached by schools in 4 of New Brunswick's 7 school districts, a CBC News analysis has found. The other 3 districts could not provide any data on how many students were reached.

A CBC News survey found only 4 school districts could provide data on students reached while schools closed

Only four of New Brunswick's seven school districts were able to provide statistics on the number of students they've been able to reach during the pandemic. (CBC)

Only four out of New Brunswick's seven school districts have been able to provide figures on the number of students reached by teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a CBC News analysis.

Those four school districts, which reported reaching between 95 to 98 per cent of their students, communicated with students through phone calls, emails and video chats, among other methods.

Though the four districts reported reaching the vast majority of their students, that still leaves more than 1,300 students who weren't reached by teachers and have not had formal education since the pandemic shut schools in March. That doesn't include the three districts which could not provide data on the number of students who haven't been reached at all.

Even for those who were reached, it's not clear how consistently they engaged with teachers or participated in online learning.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy said his department would be looking at data from the last three months to see what lessons can be learned.

"But I have been absolutely explicit from the beginning that what we were offering from April to June of this year was not home learning in the way that we expect it to be in September," Cardy said last Friday, when asked about the uneven data collection.

"It was designed to make sure there was some continuity in a difficult period at the beginning of the first wave of the pandemic. So that absolutely is something of interest, but it is far down my list of concerns."

Students returning to schools in the fall

CBC News surveyed every school district in Atlantic Canada to gauge how schools were coping with educating students in their homes, including the number of students who were reached after they left the classroom.

In New Brunswick, the reasons for not being able to reach a student ranged from poor access to the internet or lack of cell service in the area, to teachers not being able to get hold of the student's parents, according to the districts' responses.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy says the education system isn't designed for long-term learning at home, especially without a reliable way to get educational materials to students. He is posing here with laptops and iPads purchased for students earlier this spring. (Submitted by the government of New Brunswick)

"Despite the exemplary work carried out by school and district staff over the last few months, the reality of the situation in our public education system was not perfect," Cardy told reporters on Friday

"The system isn't designed to support long-term learning at home, particularly without regular, reliable means of delivering educational materials to all students."

The learning experience is set to look significantly different in the fall as students return to schools, Cardy announced last Friday.

Children in Kindergarten to Grade 8 will be in school full-time with a teacher. For students in Kindergarten to Grade 2, group sizes will be 15 students "wherever possible." Grades 3 to 5 will have smaller group sizes where possible, while Grades 6 to 8 will have normal class sizes.

Students in high school will continue to do some of their learning online, while attending school a minimum of every other day, according to the government's plan.

An uneven playing field

But the playing field won't be even when students return to classrooms, with some students further behind than others.

"We're going back in September in circumstances that no one has ever experienced before," Cardy said Friday.

"So absolutely, we're going to be giving teachers and schools the freedom to be able to make adjustments to the learning plan so that they can meet the students where they are."

Students will be returning to schools in New Brunswick this fall, but students can expect smaller class sizes, staggered arrival times and, in the case of high school students, some online learning. (Émilien Juteau/Radio-Canada)

When asked whether that might be challenging to plan for districts that don't have figures on the number of students they're reaching, Cardy said he didn't feel the two things were connected.

"The plans from April to now were continuity of learning plans to allow the whole system to prepare for proper blended learning starting in September," the minister said.

"So the districts will be able to provide their plans because we have a district-based system, and they'll be there to be able to answer all those questions, and certainly I'll be interested in talking with them about that and we'll be sharing and collaborating as we always do."

98 per cent of students reached in Francophone South

In all three of the province's francophone school districts, a minimum of 95 per cent of students have been reached by teachers since schools closed, according to information the districts provided to CBC News.

In the Francophone Northwest school district, figures show that teachers have reached 98 per cent of the 5,166 students by phone, email, Zoom or a platform called Microsoft Teams.

The Anglophone South school district was able to connect with 98 per cent of its students during the pandemic. (CBC)

Schools handed out at least 505 laptops and 51 iPads and planned to help connect 93 families who did not have internet access in the province's smallest district by student population.

For the students who have not been reached, the reasons are diverse, according to district spokesperson Julie Poulin, but mostly seem to be that parents or students are not interested or because parents work full-time.

In Francophone South, the largest francophone school district in the province, teachers have been in contact with 97.5 per cent of students, including 95 per cent of high school-aged students, according to spokesperson Ghislaine Arsenault.

"The first contacts were made by telephone and we encourage teachers to maintain this kind of personal contact on a regular basis," Arsenault wrote in a response sent before the school year ended.

That district handed out laptops or iPads to 165 students who didn't have access to devices, and offered the tools to 554 students who only had a smartphone, Arsenault said.

Staff at the Francophone Northeast school district estimate its teachers have reached 95 per cent of its students by email, phone or video conferencing through Microsoft Teams or Skype.

"However, some students are still difficult to reach despite our efforts and several factors are involved," spokesperson Ian-Guillaume DesRoches wrote in an email. 

"Sometimes, teachers may find it difficult to establish contact with the student's parents, whether by phone or other means of communication. In addition, teachers sometimes deal with refusal to respond to school communications."

Schools in the Francophone Northeast district handed out 430 laptops or tablets to students.

1 in 10 in Anglophone South couldn't access online learning

In the province's largest school district by student population, superintendent Zoë Watson said schools ultimately connected with all but 392 of the Anglophone South school district's approximately 23,000 students.

While the district knows how many students it was able to reach, it doesn't have data on how many of those families engaged with the online learning opportunities, Watson said.

In New Brunswick's francophone school districts, teachers reached between 95 to 98 per cent of students. (CBC)

Schools in the district surveyed families over the phone in early May to try to figure out how many students didn't have access to devices or internet.

"High speed connectivity was an issue for example at Belleisle Regional High School, where many families do not have strong internet, the speed is slow or it just doesn't function," Watson wrote in an email.

"We had some in the more rural areas outside of Sussex as well who reported internet was an issue."

Before distributing tools like laptops, the district found that an average of 11 per cent of students had no way to access online learning, either because they couldn't be reached, they didn't have a device to go online or they didn't have internet access.

In some inner-city Saint John schools, the numbers were even higher than the 11 per cent average, Watson said.

No data from three districts

None of the other three Anglophone school districts were able to provide data on the number of students reached by teachers.

While Anglophone North isn't tracking the number of students reached at the district level, that is information that individual schools have, according to district spokesperson Meredith Caissie.

"They are the best possible people to be checking and keeping in touch, as they know their students and their learning needs best," Caissie said.

While all four anglophone school districts reported distributing laptops and iPads to students, none of the districts could provide exact figures on how many were given out.

More than 1,151 iPads and laptops were distributed to students across New Brunswick this spring to assist in online learning. Four out of seven school districts could not provide exact figures on the number of devices distributed, so the true number is likely much higher. (CBC)

The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, which announced the purchase of $860,000 worth of devices last month, also couldn't say how many laptops or iPads have been given out across the province.

Students facing 'learning loss' going into fall

As teachers and students look ahead to the fall, both will need to be flexible, according to Ken Brien, an associate professor of educational administration and leadership in the University of New Brunswick's education department. 

"To expect everything to be done exactly the way it was pre-pandemic is not realistic," he said.

Teachers and students will need to be flexible in the fall, when students return to schools, according to Ken Brien, a professor in UNB's education department. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

"It would be important to realize that some whole new learning has to happen."

While students normally face some of what Brien describes as "learning loss" during the summer months, some will be arriving in the fall having a long stretch of time without formal education. Some will also feel a loss of social connection.

"It's definitely going to take some time to even things out, that's for sure," Brien said.

About the Author

Karissa Donkin is a journalist in CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Do you have a story you want us to investigate? Send your tips to NBInvestigates@CBC.ca.

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