Teachers fear impact of 'crammed' curriculum on students

Many teachers in eastern Ontario say they have concerns about educational outcomes for students this year. They say many students are struggling with the accelerated pace of learning.

CBC questionnaire reveals teachers' concerns over COVID-19 education models

Barrhaven teacher Erica Potter says she's had to filter down the curriculum to fit everything into 11 in-class days. (Submitted by Erica Potter)

Mashkura Tabassum Tathoye is feeling the pressure. 

The Grade 12 student at Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary School in Orléans is hoping to get into the University of Waterloo to study architectural engineering, but she's worried about achieving the marks she'll need to make that dream come true, especially given the new quadmester system: two subjects in half the normal time on alternating weeks, all while switching between in-school and online learning.

"A lot of people are not being able to keep up with the pace, and it's really affecting them mentally and emotionally because we're all trying our best," Tathoye said. 

Tathoye said some of her peers have seen their grades drop dramatically, and the compressed timeframe means there's little time to boost mid-term marks. 

"I know friends who are doing fine, and then there are friends who are just not doing well whatsoever — people who have gotten over 80 now are getting in the 60s."

Grade 12 student Mashkura Tabassum Tathoye says students are coming up with creative ways to meet new learning challenges this year, 'but I don't think it will ever really balance out the pressure and anxiety we're feeling.' (Supplied by Mashkura Tabassum Tathoye)

No time to absorb information

Many teachers in eastern Ontario say they, too, have concerns about educational outcomes for students this year. 

CBC Ottawa sent nearly 10,000 questionnaires to teachers in several different school boards across the region, asking them about how this school year is going. More than 1,000 replied. 

In dozens of written comments, teachers told CBC they fear kids' education is suffering this year, and say many students are struggling with the accelerated pace.

"The speed of instruction is very challenging, not only for teachers, but it's challenging for students as well," said Paris Vasiliou, a science teacher at A.Y. Jackson Secondary School. 

"They don't have time to sit and absorb and process the information that's being given to them in a meaningful way at all. And my experience thus far is that kids are struggling academically."

Science teacher Paris Vasiliou says the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board needs to reassess the educational model it has chosen this year. (Supplied by Paris Vasiliou)

In the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), in-person high school classes last four hours and take place every other day. Two subjects are taught on alternating weeks, and students only have 11 or 12 in-person classes per subject throughout the quadmester. 

Vasiliou said teachers no longer have the time to go back over material that didn't stick. 

"As teachers, we're cramming and trying to get through the curriculum, and for students, it must feel like ... they're just being bombarded by information."

All vegetables, no dessert

Erica Potter feels the same. The English teacher at Longfields-Davidson Heights Secondary School said she's had to focus on what's essential. 

"We got rid of some projects and summatives, we took out an entire novel study and we really focused on the core key elements of English that the students will need to be successful next year."

English teacher Erica Potter worries she doesn't have enough time to check in with her students in person. (Supplied by Erica Potter)

The problem, according to Potter, is that fun projects like book clubs are now off the menu. It's like "getting a big healthy serving of vegetables ... but there's no cake. There's no candy. There's no chocolate bars,"  she said.

Potter also worries that with kids only in school every other day, it's harder to check on those who might be struggling. 

"I don't see them as often, and I can't go up to their desk and grab a pencil and make some notes on their paper," Potter said. "The onus is really on the student to contact me."

Different systems creating 'inequities'

Different boards in the region are following different educational models this year. 

Students in Renfrew and Kingston, where COVID-19 cases are significantly lower, are in school all day, every day. Unlike the OCDSB, high school students in both the Ottawa Catholic School Board and the French public board, the Conseil des écoles publiques de l'Est de l'Ontario, attend class all day on in-school days, and both subjects are covered each day. 

Vasiliou believes that's creating inequities.  

"Are students that are in the Catholic system going to be better off … getting into universities or colleges because their marks are higher compared to students in the public board?" 

Paris Vasiliou teaches science at A.Y. Jackson Secondary School in Kanata. (Supplied by Paris Vasiliou)

In a statement to CBC, the OCDSB said the "key strength" of its model is safety, and that "measures in place do seem to be effective in terms of limiting the spread of COVID-19 in schools".

The board said according to a recent student survey, the overwhelming majority felt engaged in learning, and nearly two-thirds felt their well-being had improved or stayed the same since returning to school — although high schoolers were more likely to report a decline in well-being than younger students.

Vasiliou understands the need to keep COVID-19 numbers down, but wonders at the cost. 

"If we have kids and parents that are stressed and kids disengaging from school because their marks are low, what's the cost versus the benefits of that? So sure, they won't get infected by COVID, but how is that going to affect their long-term future, and how is that going to affect their mental health?"

How is the school year going for you or your child? Let CBC Ottawa know.


Jennifer Chevalier

Senior Producer, The House

Jennifer Chevalier is the senior producer of CBC Radio's The House. You can contact her at

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