Nfld. & Labrador

With schools closed again, are N.L.'s kids falling behind? Here's what the experts say

The province's reliance on virtual learning, according to global research over the last two years, may be holding students back — and ultimately affecting us all — for decades to come.
Students in Newfoundland and Labrador will be learning online, again, at least until the end of next week. (Mike Moore/CBC)

Students across Newfoundland and Labrador have spent an unprecedented swath of the last two years learning from home at least part-time, as the pandemic approaches its third year.

No school means no recess, face-to-face socializing or in-person support. For children in Grade 6 and under, it also means a severely curtailed instruction period: just 90 minutes a day.

As announced by the Department of Education on Thursday, the education system will remain that way at least until mid-month as officials wait for the latest COVID-19 outbreak to subside.

But the province's reliance on virtual learning, according to global research over the last two years, may be holding those students back — and ultimately affecting us all — for decades to come.

Emerging evidence points to some significant shortfalls of remote learning. Perhaps the most quantifiable is a phenomenon called "learning loss," which undoes the gains made over a regular school year. 

Learning loss is often seen during prolonged summer breaks, but studies around the world have found it's also occurring throughout the pandemic, despite the implementation of virtual classes.

Prachi Srivastava is a professor of education and global development in the faculty of education at Western University. (Western University)

In one study in Brazil, remote learners soaked up only 27.5 per cent of the knowledge in-class students did. Other studies found kids were, indeed, falling behind by margins of several months in the areas of reading and math.

Those losses aren't temporary, argues Prachi Srivastava, who teaches education and global development at Western University in London, Ont.

"We know that there are significant harms at an individual and a societal level," Srivastava said. 

"The best education economists in the world have predicted that school closures even of … 14 to 16 weeks can result in a six per cent GDP loss.

"In a country like Canada, that is the equivalent of $95 billion. It is not small."

Ripple effect

A Royal Society of Canada report, published in August last year, conveyed more dire news for virtual-only systems, suggesting that logging into class from home did little more for educational outcomes than simply skipping school altogether.

A systematic review of curricula around the world "concluded that the spring 2020 school closures negatively affected achievement, particularly among younger students and less affluent students," the report said. 

Education Minister Tom Osborne says getting kids back to class is a priority, but only when his department and public health officials deem it safe to do so. (Patrick Butler/Radio-Canada)

"Indeed, their results suggest that the amounts of learning that arose from remote instruction was not very different from that which students can acquire without any instruction."

Some studies — including a 2021 paper from the World Bank — predict those setbacks will affect the future pocketbooks of these students, resulting in potential losses of hundreds of dollars a year in career earnings.

Provincial Education Minister Tom Osborne appears to agree with the evidence: kids belong in school. "It's better for kids to get back into class as quickly as we can," he told CBC News on Wednesday.

"It's better for their mental well-being.… It does provide a better educational environment."

'Generational catastrophe'

Tracy Vaillancourt, the Canadian research chair in children's mental health, says on average, Osborne is right: most kids do better inside a school building, surrounded by peers and educators. 

"We send them to school so they can be with their friends and sprinkle math on top of them. And that's why they go — it's because they have a fundamental need to belong," she said.

"Every child advocacy group around the world has come out and said we're on the cusp of a generational catastrophe. We need to prioritize children. And yet, for some reason, children are never prioritized. They're the afterthought of a pandemic."

Tracy Vaillancourt is the Canadian research chair in children's mental health and violence prevention at the University of Ottawa. (Caitlin Taylor/CBC)

If jurisdictions insist on sticking with virtual school, Srivastava says, the entire system needs an overhaul.

"There are huge amounts of structural and home issues that need to be resolved and actually attended to, if online virtual schooling is something that is going to be brought in again and again and again," Srivastava said. 

That includes a revised curriculum, smaller class sizes — 10 students to one instructor for younger students, she suggests — and more help for parents and caregivers, who may find themselves becoming ad-hoc educators.

Without that overhaul, warned Srivastava, the outlook remains bleak.

"This is going to be a long-term recovery," she said.

"We will get to a point where the virus is controlled, but the issues in terms of recovery are going to outlive that."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The Current and CrossTalk

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