The House

More homework while learning less: Students open up about pandemic schooling

Education systems throughout Canada have had to improvise their way through the COVID-19 pandemic, often with detrimental effects on learning and mental health. As the country looks to reopen, teens and experts discuss the best way forward.

Teens, experts talk about fixing an education system shaken by the pandemic

A classroom at Bloomfield Elementary School in Prince Edward Island shows various public health measures, including physically distanced desks, hand sanitizer and a face mask. (Jane Robertson/CBC)

"Stressful and horrible." "Exhausting." "Overall, just frustrating."

Those are descriptions of the experience of some teens and teachers in Canadian schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, a period in which the Canadian education system has endured an unprecedented shock, with significant knock-on effects for learning.

For students and experts who joined CBC's The House for a special episode covering issues affecting youth during the pandemic, the questions and concerns around education pile up. Will students be able to catch up on lost learning? Are teachers equipped for online instruction? Can schools sustain a new online model or class structure?

UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Education Stefania Giannini discusses the pandemic’s impact on education and students Alexandria Burton, Hannah Cohen and Mohib Haque reflect on a challenging academic year.

'I'm not learning anything anymore': student

For many students, the experience of pandemic learning has been characterized by flip-flopping between in-person and online learning, significant changes to course structure and a ballooning workload.

"I have so much homework, I literally just eat, sleep and do homework. And I repeat that every day," Grade 11 student Hannah Cohen told host Chris Hall in an interview that aired Saturday.

And yet Cohen and her fellow students say they are learning less, and less is being retained because of the nature of online learning and the introduction of the "quadmester" system — in which students take just two courses at a time, with the year split into four segments.

"I'm not learning anything anymore, I'm just memorizing. I can't remember a single thing I learnt from Quad One because I just memorized it all and threw it away after," Cohen said.

Hannah Cohen is a Grade 11 student in Toronto. (Submitted by Hannah Cohen)

Cohen launched an online petition to urge the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) to do away with the quadmester system after the board announced it would remain in place for the 2021-22 school year.

"We recognize that some students experienced challenges with the model this year, while others preferred it, and we are continuing to explore ways to improve the model that was used this year, to better meet the needs of all students," the TDSB said in a statement.

The issues go beyond the quadmester system. For Alexandria Burton, a Grade 10 student in Edmonton, the frequent switching between online learning and in-person education has been a difficult adjustment. Then there's the fact that teachers are being forced to skip or amend the curriculum to help students learn as much crucial content as possible.

"I might not know some of the stuff other people learned because of how they're cutting corners," Burton said, so an understanding of that fact from teachers and universities would be beneficial.

Alexandria Burton is a Grade 10 student in Edmonton. (Submitted by Alexandria Burton)

Mohib Haque, a senior in Antigonish, N.S., says for the most part, his experience has been quite different. Nova Scotia's relatively successful handling of the pandemic has meant his schooling has been in-person — until cases spiked in late April.

Haque said he was concerned that school closures would have an impact on his preparedness for post-secondary education, noting that learning from home doesn't equal more time for school.

"People think ... that if we are online and we're staying at home, then automatically we have a lot of time, like we have the whole day just to do this. But that's not really always true for all people."

Haque also said that school allows kids to get away from what could be a difficult home environment, and he made an appeal to administrators and politicians to understand the mental health impact of closures.

Fears students will be left behind

CBC News recently sent out a survey to educators across the country asking for their thoughts on learning during the pandemic. The responses, from nearly 9,500 educators, reveal significant concerns that students are being left behind and may suffer long-term consequences.

Matthew Morris, a Grade 7-8 teacher in Toronto, said students in his class were becoming more disconnected during the school year and were missing out on the positive social benefits of the classroom environment.

"I really feel for this generation of students that is enduring this. I'm afraid to see what's going to happen in the next five or six years," he told host Chris Hall.

Dalhousie University professor Julia Wright, University of Ottawa professor Jenn Wallner and middle school teacher Matthew Morris talk about how to ensure Canadian kids aren’t left behind and how educational systems can be improved.

Julia Wright, an English professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax and chair of the working group on higher education for the Royal Society of Canada's COVID-19 task force, said that in the post-secondary context, young people are dealing with a "potent mix" of challenges, including lack of confidence in their learning and financial constraints.

The answer, she said, is significant reinvestment in public education.

"This is not the time to cheap out. We've seen the benefits of strong federal leadership on putting money into people."

For Jenn Wallner, an associate professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa, the federal government's role in the university system is clear, but it should stay out of elementary and high schools.

"One of the reasons why Canada has managed to carve out a robust system of elementary and secondary education is in fact because the federal government is not involved," she said.

Wallner said Quebec is taking the lead in investing in programs to curb learning loss and adapt to the circumstances of the pandemic, and she added that difficult conversations are needed about where money gets prioritized.

UN warns of 'generational catastrophe'

Canada is far from the only country grappling with how the pandemic has changed education. Stefania Giannini, the top education specialist at UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), told The House in a separate interview that about 90 per cent of the global student population have been affected by school closures.

"So, it's an unprecedented situation. Exceptional circumstances require exceptional measures," she said. The UN has warned that unless education is prioritized, the world could be facing a "generational catastrophe."

Giannini urged governments to think of education as a third pillar — along with health and job creation — that's needed to end and recover from the COVID-19 crisis.

"This is not simply a learning crisis. This is an educational, economic and emotional crisis," Giannini said. "So, the game now must be changed."


Christian Paas-Lang covers federal politics for CBC News in Ottawa as an associate producer with The House and a digital writer with CBC Politics. You can reach him at