Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

How did N.S. schools keep in touch with students during the pandemic?

CBC reached out to every school board in Atlantic Canada in an effort to gauge how educators tracked student participation after schools closed due to the pandemic. In Nova Scotia, it's still not clear how many students participated.

The province hasn't been tracking how many students participated or how much work they completed

CBC reached out to every school board in Atlantic Canada in an effort to gauge how educators tracked student participation after schools closed due to the pandemic. In Nova Scotia, it's still not clear how many students participated. 2:24

Jennifer Norman didn't expect to spend the spring grappling with Grade 7 math homework. 

Her son, Carter, has mild attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. For several hours a day, Norman would sit with him in the kitchen of their Enfield, N.S., home to help him focus as he worked through fractions and language arts assignments. 

Like other Nova Scotia public school students, Norman's children have been out of class since March 13. Due to a medical condition, she ended up being off work with them and tried to ensure they didn't fall behind. 

Though they did review the at-home learning packages that arrived at their doorstep, Norman said the questions were too generic to spark her 12-year-old's interest. She and her husband decided to buy him a Chromebook so that he could connect more directly.

"Teachers would respond back via email and tell Carter how well he did. Carter would say after assignments, 'Mum, I had so much fun doing that.' That's how I judged that he got what he needed out of it," she said. 

One of Carter Norman's favourite at-home assignments was cooking his family a one-pot dinner. For family studies, he chopped up cod, pork back fat and onions to cook “fishermen’s brewis," a nod to his mother’s Newfoundland heritage. (Submitted by Jennifer Norman)

"I don't know for sure he got exactly what he needed for September, but I think he got enough."

Measuring success in the uncharted waters of at-home learning during the pandemic is still underway. CBC reached out to every school board in Atlantic Canada to gauge how educators tracked student participation after schools closed due to the pandemic. 

The numbers and data collected vary across the region, but none of the provinces have quantified how much work students actually completed.

Olivia, Jennifer, Marty and Carter Norman. The family decided to buy a Chromebook and a used laptop to help make at-home learning easier. They set up a routine: lessons in the morning and assignments had to be finished before any electronics came out for fun. (Submitted by Jennifer Norman)

At least 1,300 students weren't reached by schools in the four out of seven school districts that kept data in New Brunswick, the CBC News analysis found. An average of 94 per cent of students logged into their school Google Classroom accounts at least once since schools closed, according to the P.E.I. Department of Education and Lifelong Learning. But the department didn't track whether students ever logged in after that first time.

In Nova Scotia, the Department of Education responded to questions on behalf of the regional education centres and Conseil scolaire acadien provincial — but there is little information about exactly how many of the 123,000 Nova Scotian students participated in lessons after schools shut down. 

About 89 per cent of Nova Scotia students have a Google for Education account, but it's not clear how many of them used it during the pandemic or how frequently. However, overall digital storage on the platform nearly tripled between March and June compared to the previous three months. 

Looking at other measures of digital reach is part of the department's review of how at-home learning went, said Sue Taylor-Foley, executive director of Education Innovation. 

The number of Google Classrooms went from 7,200 to 17,000.  The use of Learn360, which hosts video, went up 920 per cent from April to June. 

Though many lessons happened through these portals, access to high-speed internet was identified as a barrier for many households. 

The Nova Scotia Department of Education and Early Childhood Development found that an average of eight per cent of public school students in the province had limited access to high-speed internet. (CBC News)

The province determined about eight per cent of students weren't able to access the service at home. In three districts, the average was 13 per cent.  

Because of this, the province mailed at-home learning packages to 340,000 households every two weeks. The flyer inserts included questions geared toward curriculum in specific grades. Teachers could also connect with students via lessons on USB sticks and teleconferences, the department said. But the province was not collecting numbers to determine how often this happened. 

Across Nova Scotia, education centres distributed 4,300 Chromebooks after schools closed. All students in Grade 10, 11 and 12 who needed a device received one, though there was no information about whether there were students in younger grades who did not receive one. 

The province is now surveying parents about at-home learning in hopes their feedback will offer insight into how the process went and what needs to be improved. Questions range from whether families faced internet or technological issues, to other challenges students encountered and preferred methods of communicating with teachers.  

Taylor-Foley said the province will also review feedback from teachers about resources and is working with the unions representing educators to prepare for the fall, in whatever form classes will take.   

"We want to take a look at what were some specific types of things people found valuable and be able to … ensure that people know they're there, and update those as necessary," she said. 

Set class time weren't practical 

With many families juggling multiple children in different schools, often while working from home, it wasn't always practical for teachers to assign set hours for online classes as there was no guarantee students could access devices during specific times. 

Shane MacLeod, who teaches physics at Dartmouth High, decided to create video lessons that he uploaded every Wednesday. Students could respond by email to the questions he posed when they were able. 

High school physics teacher Shane MacLeod has been filming lesson for his students on the porch of his Dartmouth, N.S., home, including one that used a bicycle wheel to demonstrate torque. (Robert Short/CBC)

The focus was less on having an assignment or at-home lab completed by a specific time, and more on figuring out how to support individual students who reported running into challenges, he said. 

"'What can I do to make this easier for you? Do you have questions or are the things that I can help you with?" said MacLeod. "Knowing that we're not in the same place, but letting them know that we're there and we're still trying to support their learning in any way that we can."

With his own two kids at home, MacLeod's work days often started at 6:30 a.m. and stretched to 8 or 9 p.m. at night. He alternated creating videos and answering emails from his students with working on lessons with his son in Grade 1. 

He was able to get a sense of how his students were processing the material based on the feedback he received.

"It certainly varied. Initially there was a larger uptake and then we had some students that drifted away over the course of it," MacLeod said. 

Students may be missing 'bits and pieces'

About a third maintained a high level of engagement, another third would respond to the lessons within the week, as opposed to a day. Others took longer. Last week, after classes were officially over, MacLeod was still collecting answers from some students who said they were still working their way through the assignments. 

The toll of the pandemic affected students in different ways, he found. Some felt the financial pressure of parents losing jobs and picked up extra shifts at work. Others were busy with the additional responsibilities of caring for younger siblings. 

"There were other ones that were really surprising to me … students said I just 'I don't know why I can't get going but this really isn't working well for me,'" MacLeod said. 

'More than we've dealt with before'

MacLeod said he's not concerned about his students being collectively behind in the fall since they're all in relatively similar positions. Instead of catching one student up on how the Pythagorean theorem works, he may have to adjust lessons to account for gaps. 

"Something we [as teachers] need to wrap our heads around is the fact that all of the students are going to be missing bits and pieces and how do we structure our classes next year in order to make sure that we can address those bits and pieces that they missed out on. But this is something we do all the time anyway," he said.

"It's going to be more than we've dealt with before, but again, it's going to be more across the board than individual differences — which of course we'll still see those as well." 

Classrooms have been empty since mid-March, when schools closed down and moved to online learning models due to the global pandemic. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Jennifer Norman said she's not overly worried about her kids being behind. Her daughter, Olivia, was able to keep on top of her school work independently — and she frequently checked to ensure the Grade 11's student's assignments were submitted.

If at-home learning has to continue in the fall, Norman thinks the province should consider providing more devices for younger students who don't have the technology. Though she acknowledges that may not solve the issue when there is no internet, she said it made a huge difference in her home. 

"We had teachers that did video chats with Carter, I had teachers that physically called and spoke to me and then they would speak to Carter. I emailed them if I had any questions, they'd email back usually within 35 to 40 minutes," she said.  

About the Author

Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Over the past 11 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. Please send tips and feedback to elizabeth.mcmillan@cbc.ca

With files from Cassidy Chisholm

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