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Fast and Hard: CANeLearn Researchers Analyze Disruptions to the 2020-21 School Year

Following the end of the 2020-21 school year, CBC News (2021a) published a map to indicate the number of weeks schools were closed provincewide/territory-wide for each jurisdiction.

Figure 1. Time lost to provincewide school closures for each province or territory across Canada for the 2020-21 school year

Canada map school closures 2020-21

However, it should be noted that many schools were also closed at the local community, district, and/or regional level, and the amount of time that students were forced into a remote learning context was likely longer for most K-12 students across Canada.

In fact, this was a trend in the overall data collection. One of the consistent findings as each jurisdiction was examined was a lack of specificity in terms of explicit guidance and/or direct mandates at the provincial or territorial level, which allowed individual school boards or districts to make decisions and take action at the local or regional level. For example, on Thursday, May 27, 2021 it was publicly announced that there had been two potential COVID-19 exposures in a local grocery store in Stephenville, Newfoundland and Labrador on the previous day (CBC News, 2021b). Later that day the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District (NLESD) closed Stephenville Elementary School and Stephenville Middle School for Friday, May 28, 2021. On Sunday, May 30, 2021, it was announced that there was a new cluster of COVID-19 cases, and the region was placed into Alert Level 4 (i.e., the province’s second-highest restriction level). However, the NLESD only closed Stephenville Primary School on Monday, May 31, 2021 (Saltwire News, 2021). All other schools in the region were open – including Stephenville Elementary School and Stephenville Middle School – and Stephenville Primary School was open again by Tuesday, June 1, 2021. In these instances, the days lost at these schools would not be included in the 17 weeks listed in Figure 12 for Newfoundland and Labrador. While this is one example, there are literally hundreds of these local and regional examples that occurred across the country when schools were forced to close and resort to remote learning.

It is important to remember that the Canadian eLearning Network (CANeLearn) pandemic reports have been designed to simply document public actions and pronouncements of various jurisdictions (see https://sites.google.com/view/canelearn-ert/ ). To date, CANeLearn has not engaged in an assessment of the educational response various governments have made during the pandemic. However, a deeper analysis of the health impacts can lead to recommendations that help to guide policy and improve safety in schools, which subsequently impact how learning opportunities are provided. For example, both Ismail et al. (2021) and Larosa et al. (2020) stressed the importance of quick testing, isolation, and other preventative interventions to better control clusters that developed in school-age children. This advice was consistent with more broadly focused research conducted by Kochańczyk and Lipniacki (2021), who examined 25 highly developed countries – as well as 10 individual US states – and found that jurisdictions that enacted quick, stringent, and sustained restrictions had lower case counts and death rates than jurisdictions that were slower to bring in restrictions or brought in looser restrictions. Additionally, Kochańczyk and Lipniacki also reported that those jurisdictions who enacted quick, stringent, and sustained measures had fewer restricted days overall, at least compared to those jurisdictions that were slow to act or brought in half measures.

From a schooling standpoint, restrictions often resulted in some form of hybrid learning or remote learning. As the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (2021) stated, based on data collected March 2020 and February 2021:

Last year, 1.5 billion students in 188 countries were locked out of their schools. Some of them were able to find their way around closed school doors, through alternative learning opportunities, well supported by their parents and teachers. However, many remained shut out when their school shut down, particularly those from the most marginalised groups, who did not have access to digital learning resources or lacked the support or motivation to learn on their own. The learning losses that follow from school closures could throw long shadows over the economic well-being of individuals and nations. (p. 3)

While Canada was one of the approximately three dozen countries featured in the report, there has not been systematic research on the impact of the pandemic on K-12 schooling. For example, the Canadian Hub for Applied and Social Research (CHASR) at the University of Saskatchewan surveyed 1002 Canadians in March 2021. These researchers found that while 63% of respondents indicated that online education delivery was a positive long-term change from the pandemic, 54% also felt that changes from COVID-19 would have a negative impact on children’s education (CHASR, 2021). Beyond this kind of perception data, much of the literature has focused on a perceived fear of potential impacts the pandemic might have on K-12 schooling (e.g., Moore et al., 2021).

Research out of the United States found that most teachers reported not being adequately trained to design, deliver, and support learning remotely (Diliberti & Kaufman, 2020). Despite the fact there was little or no delay in the re-opening of schools for the 2020-21 school year, initial research from both the United States and Europe indicated that reopening schools increased the rate of community spread of COVID-19 (Casini & Roccett, 2021; Courtemanche, 2021; Goldhaber et al., 2021; Harris et al., 2021; Riley et al., 2020). This type of discussion and research on the spread of the disease in schools has not been included in the CANeLearn reports.

As summer 2021 begins to wane, after a full year coping with pandemic school closures, most jurisdictions announcements have once again focused on a ‘safe’ return to school buildings Plans continue to be for a return to the ‘new normal’ with the opening of schools being the lynchpin to re-establishing both social and economic balance. Like in the past year, there continued to be more demand for remote learning options from some parents. Unlike in the past year, it is likely the majority of students age 12 and older will be vaccinated – along with their teachers. While a year later, at the start of the 2021-22 school year some schools are likely entering Phase 3 (particularly those with younger students, where the start could be in-person learning).

Figure 2. Four phases of educational response to COVID-19 in terms of remote and online learning adoption.

education phases COVID-19

However, the potential for COVID-19 outbreaks in the unvaccinated population in schools and communities looms. In the United States, where many schools open in August, schools are already closing as outbreaks of the Delta variant of COVID-19 erupt (Goldberg et al., 2021; Knutson, 2021; Zalazni, 2021). Although it is also important to point out that many US states have enacted laws or executive actions that prevent requiring masks and/or ban the use of remote learning (Blad, 2021; Center on Reinventing Public Education, 2021). While not handicapped by these same kinds of mandates, there is still real potential for school boards and districts across Canada to follow the same pattern as their American counterparts in terms of disease transmission within the school setting.

Given these realities, it is important to once again underscore that this line of inquiry from CANeLearn has not been designed to make assessments about the effectiveness of emergency response or the possible impacts of that response. However, it is also important that readers use the descriptive data provided by this line of inquiry over all five reports to make determinations about the appropriateness of the planning, preparations, and actions of each of these Canadian jurisdictions.

To read all of the individual profiles for each province and territory, as well as to read the full report, please visit https://secureservercdn.net/198.71.233.153/sgf.292.myftpupload.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/canelearn-2020-21-school-year.pdf

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