'COVID generation' of students falling behind, northeastern Ontario teachers worry about achievement gap

CBC News sent a questionnaire to education professionals across Canada to find out how they and their students are doing in this extraordinary school year. Nearly 9,500 responded, including dozens in northeastern Ontario who shared concerns with some promise for the future.

'If we just run things as usual, then that gap will stay quite large,' says child psychologist

In responses to a CBC questionnaire, educators in northeastern Ontario expressed concerns about some students falling behind and growing inequities. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

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 responded, including 159 in northeastern Ontario.

Robert Gruhl knows he's lucky to be teaching students who are generally motivated and are keeping on track with their school work.

Gruhl, who teaches Grade 9 introduction to technology and Grade 12 physics at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School in Sudbury, had been holding in-person classes before Ontario schools closed their doors two months ago as part of COVID-19 pandemic protection measures.

Gruhl said the unusual school year and the transition to online teaching have put him slightly behind schedule with his curriculum. But he feels his students are generally on track, and — a big priority for him — his Grade 12 students are well prepared for university.

"I think if I had to stop right now, they'd be fine. But I would like to cover all the topics so when they go to university they're not hearing about special relativity for the first time in university, when they should have had a little bit of an intro with me."

While Gruhl is optimistic for his students, responses from a national CBC questionnaire found teachers in northeastern Ontario are concerned about students not keeping up academically. Several educators expressed worry about a growing achievement gap between those who are doing well — like Gruhl's physics students — and those who are falling behind.

Concerns over growing 'performance gap'

About 159 educators In total from northeastern Ontario responded to the questionnaire, and dozens of them left additional comments. A majority of respondents said they were behind schedule for teaching the required curriculum, with more than three-quarters indicating fewer students are meeting the learning objectives. 

Todd Cunningham, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and a school and clinical child psychologist, said he was not surprised by the feedback and the fact students are falling behind presents a "real concern." 

Todd Cunningham, a school and clinical child psychologist and an associate professor at the University of Toronto, says he's not surprised educators in the CBC questionnaire report students are falling behind. (Todd Cunningham)

In a typical year, Cunningham said, about 20 per cent of students experience a "summer slide," where they lose about two to three months of learning over the break. 

These students might have underlying learning challenges, or don't have access to learning resources or family support at home. Cunningham said that same group is likely to be even more behind their peers when they are eventually back in the physical classroom again. 

"We know that the performance gap between those who have had those accesses and those who haven't is going to be much wider, and if we don't do anything about it, if we just run things as usual, then that gap will stay quite large."

Those students will be the ones who will … be at a long-term disadvantage.— Todd Cunningham, clinical child psychologist

It's a concern that was echoed in several anonymous comments from educators in their responses to CBC's questionnaire. 

"I have seen a marked decrease in many of the students' engagement, attention, ability to complete work and quality of work. This mostly affects those students who are below, or well below average academic range, even with extra supports being offered," wrote one middle-school teacher. 

"Many of my students are left alone or in charge of younger siblings in the home, while parents have to leave home to work. I fear this 'COVID generation' of students will face challenges the rest of their education, as well as far into adulthood."

'They can get caught up'

Cunningham agrees the current disruption to learning could have long-term effects on some students. To avoid that outcome, he encourages schools and teachers to focus on identifying students who have fallen behind — and intervening right away with extra supports.

"Those students will be the ones who will … be at a long-term disadvantage and possibly have impacts on their overall quality of life." 

Robert Gruhlt, a teacher at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School in Sudbury, Ont., remains optimistic about student performance despite the shift to online learning. (Submitted by Robert Gruhl)

Gruhl said he and other teachers have already been through the experience of helping students catch up, after returning to class last September following nearly six months out of the classroom.

"I had a couple of students that came to me right at the beginning saying, 'Sir, I didn't do a very good job with the remote learning, I just couldn't get into it.' And so they had to come see me at lunch a lot so they can get caught up." 

Cunningham agrees that with a specific focus on intervention, it will be possible to close the gap. 

"I think if we take a further step back and we look at other major world events that have happened; wars, natural disasters, we do see that in the long run, we're very resilient. And that for the most part people are able to get back on track." 

This story is part of a CBC News series examining the stresses the pandemic has placed on educators and the school system. Read more in this series here.

Methodology: How did CBC gather educator responses? 

CBC sent the questionnaire to 52,351 email addresses of school workers in eight different provinces, across nearly 200 school districts. Email addresses were scraped from school websites that publicly listed them. The questionnaire was sent using SurveyMonkey.

CBC chose provinces and school districts based on interest by regional CBC bureaus and availability of email addresses. As such, this questionnaire is not a representative survey of educators in Canada. None of the questions were mandatory, and not all respondents answered all of the questions.



Sarah MacMillan is a reporter with CBC Sudbury. She previously worked with CBC P.E.I. You can contact her at


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?