Canada·Schools Under Stress

Chaotic pace, no senior perks: High school grads end another disrupted year

Canadian Grade 12 students tell CBC News about their struggles adapting to learning differently this year, losing valuable face-time at school and missing the perks of senior year.

'There's not going to be those final memorable events ... and that hits hard,' says B.C. teen

This story is part of a CBC News series examining the stresses the pandemic has placed on educators and the school system. For the series, CBC News sent a questionnaire to thousands of education professionals to find out how they and their students are doing in this extraordinary school year. Nearly 9,500 educators responded. Read more stories in this series here.

With the end of this pandemic school year in sight, educators say they're feeling behind on meeting the curriculum and concerned about the impact of this year on long-term learning — but they're not alone.

Many of these worries are shared by students graduating high school this season.

Six students from British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island talked to CBC News about their struggles adapting to learning differently this year, losing valuable face-time at school and missing the perks of senior year.

Bridget Salamon, Saskatoon 

Bridget Salamon, a Grade 12 student graduating this season, is planning on taking a gap year before pursuing post-secondary studies. (Don Somers/CBC)

Bridget Salamon was Initially wary about her school division's adoption of a quintmester system to reduce the number of daily contacts. It divided the year into five blocks of about 37 days each, with students focusing on just two subjects at a time, but spending three hours daily learning each one. 

Now, she's convinced the intensive model is impossible — for students and teachers alike — especially after her days learning in-person were halved in November due to rising COVID-19 cases. 

Given that courses typically span four or five units of study, Salamon explained, "that means you're getting like three to four days to learn an entire unit, which is quite frankly impossible ... both for the students and for the teacher trying to teach it."

As they approach the end of this pandemic school year, Salamon said many peers are feeling deflated.

"Our senior year is gone…. It's definitely taken a toll: the pandemic and the insane workload from school and the fact that we are not learning everything we should.

"It just sort of feels like our class in particular has been forgotten about in our mental health and our education and all the things we're missing out on."

Jordan Mutabazi, Halifax

Changes to school during the pandemic have eroded the feelings of comfort and fun students associate with school, says Jordan Mutabazi, a Grade 12 student in Halifax. (CBC)

Jordan Mutabazi had been attending his Halifax high school in-person until a recent rise in cases sparked a province-wide switch to at-home learning.

However, even learning in-person was tough with pandemic changes. Gone was his four-class daily schedule. In its place: a two-day rotation of two, approximately three-hour long sessions that challenged his and other students' attention spans. Valuable social interactions with peers also disappeared.

"You're supposed to be spread out. It's harder to talk with someone, to ask someone a question. All your questions have to be to the teacher and [questions] disrupt class, so I feel like it may hold people back from asking," said the 17-year-old. 

Also, with the cafeteria and library closed at times, school has pretty much meant class and nothing else — eroding the feelings of comfort and fun students often associate with school, according to Mutabazi.

"I see my friends a lot less frequently than I would have otherwise," he said, noting that it's affected his mood and his achievement. 

"I've done worse this year than my other years.... I probably could have done a lot better had I been able to see my friends more, if I could just do more socially."

Denika Ellis-Dawson, Brampton, Ont.

Brampton, Ont., student Denika Ellis Dawson was able to persevere enrolled in virtual school for her final year of high school, but she regrets the loss of live interactions and in-person opportunities that her school had pre-pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Enrolled in virtual school for her final year, Denika Ellis-Dawson fought through a quadmester system she felt moved at breakneck pace while offering a cursory depth of learning.

Her biggest regret, however, is the loss of the live interactions and in-person opportunities present at school pre-pandemic. For instance, she'd been eager to experiment with recipes alongside classmates in her nutrition class or spend time in a kindergarten classroom to explore the concepts introduced in her human development course.

"Some of the field trips that we would have had, some of the topics that we would have done, physical interactions — it's definitely kind of upsetting that was missed," she said.

"You're only about 80 per cent there, because the rest would have been filled with those interactions."

Though her teachers did assign virtual activities and group work, it wasn't the same, added Ellis-Dawson, who says she isn't looking forward the possibility of online post-secondary classes come autumn when she starts university.

"We'd be put in breakout groups and I really wouldn't say much just because I wasn't comfortable with the people I was with," she said.

"No one's talking. We're all just like sitting here doing our work."

Ava Lesperance & Georgia Fraser, Souris, P.E.I.

After graduation, Souris, P.E.I., students Ava Lesperance, left, and Georgia Fraser will be housemates as they move on to college and university this fall. (Submitted by Karen Aucoin-Smith)

Compared to others, 18-year-olds Ava Lesperance and Georgia Fraser have had an "almost-normal" school year on Prince Edward Island — albeit one without Grade 12 highlights like a grad party, the French class trip to Quebec or events like senior suppers.

"When I was little, I always looked up to the Grade 12s and all the activities they did," said Lesperance. "But at the same time, we're all in school. We get to see one another every day."

Pandemic life in their seaside town of Souris can be deceiving because things largely look normal outside, said the pair. Sometimes Lesperance feels frustrated at having to don a mask for school or sad about not getting a prom, but quickly reminds herself of the lockdowns and remote learning students elsewhere are facing.

"We can go to the restaurants. We can go to movie theatres if we wanted, whereas other places in the country, none of that is available for them," she said.

"We have it so good here. We need to remember to stay positive. There're people much worse off, in places much worse off."

Fraser juggles optimism with constantly wondering when things will truly return to normal. "It's always just in the back of my mind: 'Maybe next year I'll get to go on a trip or go to another province — or will it be the year after that?'"

"You get your vaccine. But what if a new strain comes?," she said. 

"There's a lot of worry, but I think it's important to stay positive, think 'it's going to end and we're going to get through it together.'"

Himani Pathak, Surrey, B.C.

Himani Pathak feels sad about the pandemic commencement ceremony she'll have as she graduates from high school in Surrey, B.C., next month. (Submitted by Himani Pathak)

Grade 12 has been a year of constant and sometimes overwhelming adjustments, says Himani Pathak, who graduates next month in Surrey, B.C. Still, as the 18-year-old grapples with feeling not-quite prepared for post-secondary next fall, she's also lamenting the loss of ceremony this season.

"I had to pick up my high school diploma on a random Thursday [after receiving a Microsoft] Teams message from our office secretary," Pathak said.

Instead of the auditorium she always imagined, Pathak says her commencement will likely be held "in the gym where people do P.E. every single day," with students collecting awards off a stool and briefly doffing their masks to pose for a photo next to a cardboard cut-out of their principal — created for graduation last year.

"There's not going to be those final memorable events.... There's not going to be a prom or a proper commencement. And it hits hard."

Read more in this series:

To share your experience in the education system during COVID-19 and for any story tips, please email us: 


Jessica Wong

Senior writer

Jessica Wong is a senior writer for CBC News, based in Toronto.

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