Teachers worry high school grads will struggle in post-secondary education due to pandemic

Teachers worry high school grads will struggle in post-secondary education due to pandemic-Milenio Stadium-Ontario
The pandemic hit right in the middle of Charis Liu’s Grade 11 year at Markham District High School. That means she and her cohort have only had two-and-a-half years of ‘normal’ high school. (Keith Burgess/CBC News )

When the pandemic hit in the middle of Charis Liu’s Grade 11 year at Markham District High School, classrooms closed.

Ontario to offer remote learning next school year, but no details on return to class this spring

There would be no more walking down the halls with friends, no more debate club, semi-formal dances or cheering on the Markham Marauders hockey team.

“Essentially, I’ve only had two and a half years of ‘traditional’ high school,” said Liu, who graduates this year.

Taking the ongoing pandemic into consideration, she decided it would be best for her to complete Grade 12 online as well.

“It’s been extremely different.”

As she heads off to study political science at the University of Ottawa, she admits to feeling less confident she and her classmates are ready for the workload to come.

“I just feel like we’ve all kind of lost the study skills that we’ve been building up in our early years of high school.”

Teachers worried students are behind

It turns out many teachers are concerned the pandemic and online learning have left students ill-prepared for next year.

As part of the Schooling Under Stress series, CBC News invited more than 50,000 educators across the country to fill out a questionnaire voluntarily and anonymously. We received more than 9,000 responses about how they think the school year went for their students.

Nationally, more than half of respondents said fewer students are meeting learning objectives this year. In Ontario, 70 per cent of high school teachers who responded said they are grading students more leniently.

Liu says her grades have “skyrocketed” this year.

“Exams were cancelled, a lot of tests were actually open-book because they can’t do much about that since everything is online,” said the straight-A student.

“Honestly, I am pretty concerned about post-secondary as well because I just feel like we’re not very well prepared.”

A steep learning curve after year of learning loss

Nationally, 70 per cent of questionnaire respondents agreed that some students will not catch up academically by the time classrooms and lecture halls are full again.

“A significant group of students are significantly behind with potential long term consequences,” said researcher Kelly Gallagher-MacKay, professor of educational inequality at Wilfrid Laurier University.

She says students would benefit from summer school or tutoring sessions next year for extra help to make up for the learning they’ve lost.

School-Milenio Stadium-Ontario
In Ontario, 70 per cent of high school teachers who responded say they are grading students more leniently. (CBC News)

Without that kind of intervention we could see higher failure or dropout rates and colleges and universities should be ready to provide extra support for the next crop of first-year students, Gallagher-MacKay said.

“I wouldn’t underestimate student resilience, but we also need our post-secondary institutions to be ready to meet students where they are to try and be extra engaged.”

She was more concerned to learn that three quarters of the province’s high school teachers who responded to the CBC questionnaire said some students have already stopped attending school altogether.

“What I’m worried about is losing a group of people who should be gaining skills and accelerating their learning as they enter young adulthood,” she said.

“We know that a well-educated workforce is essential for both individual and our collective prosperity.”

Students slipping through cracks

Toronto teacher Jay Williams-Milenio Stadium-Ontario
Toronto teacher Jay Williams worries about teens who simply stopped their schooling during the pandemic. Three quarters of Ontario teachers who responded to the questionnaire say they’ve had students stop attending class altogether. (Submitted: Jay Williams )

Middle school teacher Jay Williams worries about the same thing.

“There’s always a concern of students falling through the cracks in regular school years.”

Also during “regular school years” students have access to in-person extra support through guidance counselling or extra attention, all things the pandemic has made more challenging to provide.

Williams checks in with many of his former students and says the pandemic has been harder on those who have traditionally not been well served by the school system.

“We’re talking about racialized students, specifically young Black boys, when it comes to their academics, specifically math and reading comprehension,” he said.

“I can imagine that that gap is widening.”

Williams says it will be important to study student success next year to fully understand the impact the pandemic has had and how to help those who are struggling during the pandemic reach their full potential.

“I’d love to be a part of a study going forward to see what that gap looks like.”

The bounce back

Students-Milenio Stadium-Ontario
High school grad Charis Liu, centre, feels ‘socially deprived’ by the pandemic. Normally, she should have been planning to go to the prom, hanging out with friends and cheering on her school’s sports teams. (Submitted: Charis Liu)

Gallagher-MacKay says students at all levels will need access to more study support to make up for learning gaps left by the burnout and easier marking.

She anticipates more kids in summer school this year to make up credits or build confidence before embarking on their post-secondary education.

Charis Liu may have missed out on that classic high school experience but she’ll try to make up for it as a university student this fall.

“I’m looking forward to joining clubs, meeting new people, even though it might feel a little overwhelming at first.”


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.

Data analysis: Roberto Rocha and Dexter McMillan


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