Saskatoon high schooler starts petition asking schools to return to standard semesters

For people out of school, words like quads, quints or octomesters might sound like math problems in high school. While some current high schoolers find them problematic, these terms actually refer to different types of block schedules which split the school year into many pieces.

High school student calls last year's course schedule a 'horrible experience'

Graeme Hopkins is going into grade 12 at Evan Hardy Collegiate in Saskatoon. He has started a petition asking Saskatoon Public Schools to return to the semester system this year. (provided by Graeme Hopkins)

For people out of school, words like quads, quints or octomesters might sound like math problems in high school.

While some current high schoolers find quints and quads problematic, these terms actually refer to different types of block schedules which split the school year into many pieces.

Students might have English and history for two months, for example, before saying goodbye to these courses and moving on to the next subjects.

These timetables allowed smaller cohorts to attend in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, but some students are unhappy with the condensed system.

(CBC News)

"You can have a compressed education of, say, drama or visual art or history and experience relatively little effects with regards to grades," said Graeme Hopkins from Saskatoon, whose school year was divided into five blocks called quints. 

Different classes come with different levels of intensity, said the high schooler, but once the "harder subjects" like physical sciences or math hit, he began struggling. 

Hopkins started a petition online asking Saskatoon Public Schools to return to the standard semester timetable this September.

Quarter system at Saskatoon's collegiates

High school students will begin the 2021-22 school year in September, with Saskatoon Public Schools proposing to run a quarter system, said Hopkins.

For the grade 12 student and his classmates at Evan Hardy Collegiate this would mean that they have to take an overall amount of ten courses during the school year. 

According to Hopkins, two of the classes would run over the course of half a year (two semestered classes) while the other eight would be split into four quarters.

Hopkins was "not a fan" when the plan of the quarter system, was announced in the spring, he said.

"This is essentially the quint system again but with an extra half-month and two semestered classes out of ten," he said in his online petition.

Dropping grades 

During his second quint last school year, one of Hopkins' classes was math, and he began struggling to keep up with the pace of the course that was compressed into a two-month period.

"If you miss on one concept or if you fail to understand one thing, you have an extremely narrow window to correct it," said Hopkins.

His grades continued to drop once he had to tackle both physical sciences and a pre-calculus course during another quint.

"That was a horrible experience in almost every way," said Hopkins. "Each class came with such a heavy workload and because the time given was so accelerated and so sped up."

It became really hard to understand what some teachers were trying to teach students, he said. Hopkins ended this particular quint with a 50 per cent in pre-calculus, and he failed the physical sciences class.

While he acknowledges that he was never very good in math, Hopkins made it on the honour roll last year. He has never failed a class before, he said. According to his online petition, he will take an extra year of high school.

Mental health challenges

Squeezing the workload into a smaller time period didn't only take a toll on students' grades, but also their mental health.

"So many people have reached out to me about that and have given me their feedback," said Hopkins.

"Everything that I experienced, that for a time I thought must have been unique to me, is apparently extremely widespread."

Stress and anxiety became hard to bear, said Hopkins, with his mind always racing. The student felt like he could not escape.

"There was also such a stigma about it," he said. "It's so strange and so new that you think it's just you or that it is your own fault."

Another Saskatoon Grade 12 student who spoke with CBC last fall, echoed Hopkins' negative feelings toward the quints system, calling the experience "information overload."

"It was just way too much," Bridget Salamon said.

"If you asked me to take my biology final today, I don't think I would pass it because I retained so little information from my class."

Grade 12 student Bridget Salamon speaks to CBC News in Saskatoon on November 4, 2020. (Don Somers/CBC)

New quarter system based on survey responses

According to Saskatoon Public Schools, their decision was based on a survey they sent out last school year to students, families and staff, asking specifically about the block system and how they felt it went.

"The change to the quarter system is taking into account that feedback that we received," said Veronica Baker, manager of communications and marketing at Saskatoon Public Schools.

The decision about the timetable system was made in the spring, according to Baker, at a time when they didn't know what the new school year would look like. 

"We wanted to give some direction to our families and to our staff," she said.

"The quarter system allows us to still maintain a reduced amount of contact between students to provide some staggered break times."

The changes are supposed to address the challenges of the past block system (quints) while still taking safety concerns into consideration, said Baker.

Student still hoping for change

According to his petition, Hopkins calls the new timetable in Saskatoon's collegiates "extremely similar to the quint system."

The student was inspired to start a petition by a report from the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, he said.

In their report — titled School operation for the 2021-2022 academic year in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic — the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table noted that "for many students, the adaptive learning models used to deliver education in cohorts were not optimal for learning, development, or social interactions."

The report also recommended that efforts should be made to return to normal scheduling as early as possible, considering the broad vaccine availability. 

"I felt validated in my feelings," said Hopkins.

In his petition, the student calls the quints system, implemented in the middle of the pandemic last year, "an appropriate response," but speaks out against the continuation of this kind of scheduling form.

Hopkins is concerned about the current rise in new COVID-19 cases in Saskatchewan, he said.

However, he remains convinced that schools should return to the standard semester timetable with other public health measures in place as needed, he said. 

"The quints and these proposed quads, what they've done is they've essentially made education impossible for some people."

Hopkins said he understands how much work it might be to make changes to the timetable system, but he remains hopeful that he will be heard.

"I think there are other ways to keep people safe while still allowing them to learn."

Saskatoon Public Schools will release its back-to-school plan on Monday.

With files from Saskatchewan Weekend