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September is here.  More than 5.5 million Canadian students have returned to school in the last few weeks.  For most schools in Canada, classrooms continue to look different with a focus on safety measures and anticipated interruptions due to COVID outbreaks.

The past two years had a significant impact on many students.  Teachers are welcoming many students who thrived during the hybrid and remote-learning environments, but they are also re-engaging with a considerable number of students who struggled, in part due to learning loss.

Many students experienced difficulty with internet connections, accessing computers, finding support at home, and in some cases, simply accessing adequate food and shelter. Many students struggled socially and emotionally, which impacted their mental health, as well as their academics.

The Extent of Learning Loss

Early learning researchers around the world estimate the negative impact of academic achievement from school closures due to COVID-19 and termed the phenomenon  the ‘COVID Slide’.  Illuminate Education found that the COVID slide has led to between two and four months of learning loss.  Specific to young or early learners, the research predicts significant gaps in both reading and math skills, with an approximate reading loss of two months across the K-2 grades, most acutely felt in kindergarten.

NWEA research predicts a 30% loss of academic progress in reading skills compared to a typical school year.  It’s worse for math skills acquisition, with a predicted 50% loss. It’s suggested that early learners may fall behind a whole year because of this learning loss.

Behind the Learning Loss: School Closures

In Canada, this has been a difficult year for many students. Parts of Canada endured school closures for more than 31 weeks which, according to UNESCO, compares to countries such as Italy, Romania, Ethiopia, Cambodia and Afghanistan. How and if kids learned depended partly on where they were living. The school experience varied widely from province to province.

For example, students attending school in British Columbia and Nova Scotia had a relatively normal year as school largely stayed open after September 2020.   Whereas students in Ontario had the largest disruption—many schools, in Toronto and surrounding areas in particular, were closed for more than 20 weeks, plus an indefinite shutdown for the last 3 months of the school year.

The Impact on Marginalized Students

According to UNESCO, COVID-19 affected approximately 1.5 billion children across 195 countries due to school closures. But some were more affected than others.  Researchers have recognized that recent school closures widened existing gaps in learning needs for many marginalized students, when compared to their peers.

Those students who were struggling before the pandemic, have been set back even further.  The shift toward remote learning at home during the pandemic exposed long-standing inequities throughout our education system—highlighting divides between socioeconomic, geographic, and racial cohorts.

Early in the pandemic, researchers used data from summer learning loss to predict potential learning gaps caused by closures.  As recent studies that use data from the 2020-21 school year have shown, the actual impact is much greater.

A recent study out of the Netherlands indicates that students in remote schools “made little to no progress” while learning from home due to COVID-19. The study further suggests that longer school closures will lead to bigger learning gaps.  Students that are most impacted with the shift to virtual and hybrid learning are those from marginalized communities and lower-income households.

The Impact on Kindergarten

COVID-19 and school closures are having a significant impact on young learners. Across North America, there is a noticeable number of kindergarten students who did not enroll or attend school during the pandemic.  As students were forced online, many families decided to defer their attendance in formal schooling and chose to homeschool their child.

Schools and education leaders are preparing for an increase in kindergarten and grade 1 enrolment this school year and planning how they will meet the increasingly diverse needs of these young learners.

Some education experts are predicting a “kindergarten bubble” of four-, five- and six-year-olds who may be more unprepared for formal schooling compared to cohorts from previous years.  Typically, preschool and kindergarten focus on play-based, experiential activities that not only develop early reading and math skills, but also introduce pivotal social and emotional skills such as conflict resolution and sharing.

According to the Canadian Children’s Literacy Foundation, even before the pandemic more than 25% of students started Grade 1 without the necessary reading skills —which puts them at risk for falling behind in school. There is a strong correlation between early literacy and numeracy with high-school graduation rates and overall success in education.  The coming years will determine the impact of those students who deferred their kindergarten years on the overall education system.

What Can Schools and Educators Do?

This school year will bring a lot of exceptional challenges for educators. Many students who find themselves behind their peers now require extra support from their teachers as well as their families at home.

In a class full of 20 to 30 students with an increased gap in learning needs and abilities, it’s going to be more challenging than ever for teachers to support each and every student – especially those who require extra support.  Schools should look to address the following:

Holistic Assessment

Identify early and often the learning needs and abilities through the use of formative assessment in the classroom. Take the opportunity at the beginning of the school year to conduct assessments, while students are in-class:

  • Be mindful of direct and indirect cultural biases that arise from the existing assessment tools you may use in your classroom.
  • Look to adopt holistic assessment approaches (like Sprig Language) that take a more comprehensive approach to understanding learning beyond the classroom, and that also supports learning in the home and community.

Personalized Learning

Schools and school districts will need to support teachers with innovative tools that will support the delivery of personalized learning for each and every student. Going back to school will require more differentiation than ever before—we need to look at technologies to support this:

  • Use data gleaned from early assessments to help inform differentiated instruction to ensure individual learning gaps and needs are addressed immediately;
  • Our Sprig Learning AI helps teachers to do this at scale to ensure no student is left behind.

Support Parents at Home

In the early years, parents are pivotal to a child’s educational success, and this has never been more true than it is today. Given the reliance of at-home learning leading up to this school year –  and increased dependence as the pandemic continues – schools and teachers need to dedicate time and resources to provide the necessary support for all parents, but especially those who need it most:

  • Educational apps, tools and resources should include simple, easy to follow instructions for all parents.
  • Parents need help navigating curriculums and in understanding their child’s learning needs, which requires consistent communication between teachers and parents.
  • Look to Sprig Home as a tool that can provide parents of young learners with access to simple, easy-to-implement learning activities turning everyday moments into learning opportunities.

Learn and Reflect on the Road to Recovery

The 2020-21 school year was one that should have provided educators and researchers with an enormous amount of information and data about the efficacy of new approaches to learning (i.e. hybrid instruction and virtual learning).

  • Educators must look to analyze the information collected from the past two years to support crucial decision making and improve the quality of education in Canada, especially for our most vulnerable students.
  • Within the focus on ‘learning loss’ and ‘learning recovery’, recognize and identify that there were many ‘learning gains’.  Teachers must look to embrace and integrate the importance of the new technology skills acquired, as well as build up and foster the newly developed aptitudes and attitudes (i.e. independence, persistence and adaptability).

It’s a new school year, and as schools reopen everyone must be prepared to support students, especially those who may be behind academically. Every early learner is truly unique. In order to adequately support them, we need to understand their individual strengths, challenges and interests across a multitude of learning environments.

Support is essential in all areas: their school, their home and in their community.  We need to work collaboratively to determine the best way to assess and utilize data to help us mitigate the potential impacts of this pandemic.  This new school year also brings an opportunity to learn from the past and improve our classrooms, schools and broader education systems to support every young students’ ability to learn and succeed.

About Sprig Learning

Sprig Learning is a Canadian-based, purpose-built education technology company that believes all children should have what matters most: a fair shot at success. Sprig Learning provides early learners, educators and parents with the tools and resources needed to build a foundation for lifelong learning—both at home and in school.

Sprig Learning’s unique approach to assessment and learning considers each child’s entire learning environment—their home, school, and community. Our early years programs uncover new insights into students’ strengths, challenges, and interests which personalize a learning pathway for each and every learner. Winner of best Language Learning App, Sprig Learning is becoming known as a leader in early years programming.