N.B. learning programs suffered because of pandemic, say top education officials
COVID-19 upended programs like play-based learning, French immersion and more
Top provincial education officials have painted a picture of new initiatives and pilot projects thrown into turmoil by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The virus sidetracked programs on play-based learning, French immersion, literacy and even electric school buses, and some of them may not yield clear results.
"The research project is inconclusive at this time," francophone sector deputy minister Marcel Lavoie said of the play-based learning pilot during a meeting of the legislature's public accounts committee.
"So there are more decisions to come but the program is on pause right now."
The pilot aimed to measure whether an extra hour of play-based learning time for students from kindergarten to Grade 2 would improve outcomes.
Anglophone sector deputy minister George Daley said the department hoped to use findings in new contract negotiations with the New Brunswick Teachers' Federation.
While there were some positive impacts and some schools have opted to keep the extra hour, the pandemic disrupted learning to the point it's impossible to draw clear conclusions.
"It wasn't like there was a pushback to what we were doing," Daley told the committee of MLAs examining the education department's 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 annual reports.
"We're just not confident that we could take data from it and use it as something solid because of the turmoil that was created by the pandemic."
Likewise, a project on alternative-fuel buses that began in what Daley called "wonderful 2019" was cut short by the pandemic.
Second-language project on hold
And a major initiative to let a handful of individual anglophone schools explore new ways to teach French as a second language was sidetracked as well.
"We had to pause because of the pandemic," Daley said.
Even so, several of the projects still allowed the department to draw conclusions.
The French second-language program, which involved 11 schools and two early learning centres trying out new methods, had some positive signs, Daley told Progressive Conservative MLA Sherry Wilson.
Wilson said she heard good feedback during a CBC interview with participants in a Salisbury school.
"What I would suggest is what you heard on CBC, the sentiment and the positive feeling," Daley said, "I think that's consistent in all of our facilities."
He said he recently saw a final report on the initial projects, which he said will be released soon.
This year 25 facilities including seven early learning centres are taking part.
Daley also said the school bus project results suggest electric buses are a good option in urban areas but may not have the battery storage capacity to work well in rural areas, where propane-powered buses did well.
Opposition critic stunned by low spending estimates
During Tuesday's committee meeting, Liberal education critic Benoit Bourque said he was surprised to hear from the two deputy ministers there was almost no special COVID funding in their budgets this year.
"We would be back into a regular budget cycle. We would not have been looking for any additional funds on COVID initiatives," Daley said.
Bourque said he was stunned to learn that other than $1 million to continue buying laptop computers for some high school students and some funding for cleaning, COVID-related funding had ended.
"My reaction is wow, how can we go from $71 million [in 2020-21] to a million while we still are in a pandemic situation worldwide, and we know things are coming," he said, referring to an expected increase in transmission with kids back in school.
"That's quite a gap," he said.
Lavoie told him that a large part of the $71 million two years ago was the creation of what amounted to a new emergency daycare system made necessary by lockdowns.
"We lived through many things that explain those expenses, things that are no longer needed today," Lavoie said, adding that funding in other areas such as for mental health, mentoring and social workers also exists to help students catch up academically.
Daley also pushed back at the perception that the last two years were all negative for students.
He said the 2020-21 year, which saw hybrid learning, had fewer snow days than normal and a lower student-to-teacher ratio in classrooms when students were in class.
"Those students in that first year had a very, very strong academic year with regard to their instruction," he said. "There were all kinds of competing factors and mental health issues surrounding them and things, but when it came right down, it turned out very positive."
Daley was quick to add that last year was different, with new variants leading to higher rates of absenteeism among students and teachers and more uncertainty.
Still, "I think we've had a thought process where we've had two really negative academic years, and I don't think that's the case," he said.
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