As the school year comes to a close, Firdaus Shallo couldn’t be more relieved.

Firdaus Shallo, who is finishing Grade 12 at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute in North York, says the pandemic has a detrimental impact on many students.

STEVE RUSSELL - TORONTO STAR

Firdaus Shallo, who is finishing Grade 12 at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute in North York, says the pandemic has a detrimental impact on many students.

As the school year comes to a close, Firdaus Shallo couldn’t be more relieved.

By all accounts, the Grade 12 student from C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute in North York has survived — and thrived — in a year like no other: she will graduate next month, has accepted an offer from a U.S. university, and has started her summer job.

But when she reflects on the year that has passed — with Ontario students spending the vast majority of the year learning remotely, including those who had opted to learn in person — Shallo doesn’t mince her words.

“Has this year been a lost year? Definitely,” said Shallo. “One hundred per cent a lost a year. There is no other way to put it. It felt like you were getting nothing done, and nothing was moving forward,” added Shallo. She says that while she managed to stay afloat, she has serious concerns about how her siblings, friends and community members have fared.

But the bigger concern, Shallo says, is not what’s been lost, but what happens next.

“One of the things students at my school are worried about is, how will we catch up? And I think depending on where you live in the city … there is a worry that there will be a huge gap between students who are at the level they need to be and those who aren’t,” said Shallo, whose family had opted for remote learning, worried about the high rate of the virus in their neighbourhood of Jane Street and Finch Avenue West in Toronto’s northwest corner.

Last December, the Star asked experts, students, parents and educators if they thought this school year should be written off, after a chaotic start to the year in which school boards scrambled to make in-person schools safe and build virtual schools from scratch.

At the time, many the Star spoke with were cautiously optimistic about how the year would go. Some said this would test the resiliency of both students and the public school system. Most feared the inequities in the education system before COVID-19 would be enhanced.

Months later, education researchers say there is no question there has been learning loss in Ontario, where children spent a minimum of 26 weeks in online school, longer than any other jurisdiction in the country. Just as troubling, they note, is that there have been no comprehensive Canada-wide or provincial studies detailing the extent of the learning loss. But educators say now is not the time to dwell on the past, but to look at what can be done to prevent an educational “disaster” come September.

“The fact that 2.1 million students have been disrupted for 26 weeks, you want to be able to see which groups of students are doing worse than others, so you can prioritize interventions,” said Prachi Srivastava, associate professor at Western University, specializing in education and global development. “But we don’t have that data in an open, comparable way.”

And even without clear data, Srivastava says, “It’s not a debate whether or not there have been losses. It is a fact that there have been losses. There is no reason to assume that we are in some protective bubble where we can have twice-as-long closures as similar education systems and have (lower) magnitude of learning loss.”

Srivastava was one of a number of researchers who published a paper for the provincial COVID-19 science table in June on the potential effects of education disruption due to the pandemic. The paper establishes the many gaps in data around learning, mental health, social/emotional skills assessment. And they also looked at international studies in the U.S., England and the Netherlands to assess the extent of learning loss in Ontario.

“The studies show that despite attempts at education continuity, we are seeing pretty substantial learning losses for closures that are much shorter than ours,” said Srivastava, with the numbers showing 1.6 to three months of learning loss “where the average school closure was 12-14 weeks.”

The paper also found that there was a greater impact on vulnerable populations, and “disproportionately affect(ed) students with lower socioeconomic backgrounds, racialized children and youth, newcomers and students with disabilities.”

In March, a Toronto District School Board assessment of literacy in Grade 1 found nearly a 10-percentage-point drop (from 54 to 45 per cent) between virtual students meeting grade-level reading expectations in January 2021, during the pandemic, versus in January 2019, before the pandemic. There was a three per cent drop in literacy for kids in in-person school.

The province says it is tracking the learning-loss data.

“We recently announced the largest investment in public education in Ontario history — in addition to a $1.6 billion plan to protect the safety of children and our $85 million plan to help students recover from learning loss with a focus on mental health, math and reading supports,” said Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, adding the province has also launched a summer learning program.

The province also asked school boards to develop local and customized re-engagement plans that would identify vulnerable students and meet their unique needs. They also say that in the absence of assessments, boards can use other data such as report cards, school engagements and attendance to track how students are doing.

Srivastava says the province should be implementing systemwide policies across school boards.

“This has to be led by the province,” she said. “To put this on the shoulder of schools and boards, how can they? Boards are not in charge of developing curriculum, they are in charge of implementing curriculum,” she said. “They have autonomy, but they have to work within the policy framework.”

Among those strategies she suggests for education recovery include:

Re-examine the curriculum and review for every grade from JK to Grade 12, to see what part of curriculum can be lengthened, what needs to be shuffled to the next year, and what needs to be reviewed so that students don’t lose on fundamentals.

Examine and institute remedial and boosted learning for all students in all schools, boost core skills of literacy and numeracy and institute strong programs for pyscho-social skills.

Implement targeted interventions and support for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable students.

“If we do this for two years, then we are looking at a stable recovery,” said Srivastava, adding that the province should not be looking to cut school board budgets during this time.

Fernanda Yanchapaxi, a Toronto mother of two and an organizer with the advocacy group Ontario Parent Action Network, says the province will have to work hard to regain the trust of families after what she calls “the year of abandonment.”

“We were totally abandoned by government: they couldn’t prioritize fixing ventilation in even one school in 16 months, in-school testing failed, class sizes failed, and they failed in providing any kind of support for families in virtual school,” said Yanchapaxi, who said she sent her two children to in-person school after months of virtual in February after having a breakdown.

“It feels like no one really cared about education. And they didn’t care about the mental health of students and the mental health of parents … and that is just heartbreaking,” she said, adding that the money parents received through the Support for Learners payment to cover education expenses was a fraction of the cost of educating kids at home.

Yanchapaxi said while she isn’t focused on academic milestones for her children, she was more concerned about the inability of the government to “protect the health and safety of families.” She questions if schools will even be ready for next year.

“I don’t think parents, teachers or students deserved what they had this year,” said Yanchapaxi, citing last-minute announcements from the province, constantly changing information and crowded classrooms. “I don’t know if virtual camps or classes to catch up over the summer will do much. I think we need more supports, more money, and more staff will be required when children go back in person.”

Clark said the provincial government has invested more than $750 million to improve air ventilation systems in schools and other measures to enhance their safety, on top of other investments to help students.

“With a focus on student wellness, our government is investing $80 million in mental health supports, staffing and specialized intervention, in addition to a $31 million investment in community-based mental health supports for youth.”

Shallo is also concerned that without intervention, the impact of the disruptive year will linger for a long time.

“It’s a big fear of mine, that when I get to university I will need to work my butt off to catch up,” said Shallo. “But I am even more worried about my siblings and friends — a lot of students will need that extra push next year — and I don’t know if they will get the attention they need.”

With her parents working outside the house, she says it’s been difficult to keep her younger siblings on track. Her younger sister, who was also helping care for their elderly grandmother, ended up missing many days of school. Her brother struggled to keep focused, distracted by the limitless distractions of the internet at his fingertips.

She says a number of her friends decided to delay university, opting for a gap year instead to earn money for university, while others decided to stay back to get more credits.

“There has to be a plan to prioritize students who were already at a disadvantage, and ensuring they get the support the need,”she said. “Otherwise, I’m not sure what will happen.”

Editor’s note — June 28, 2021: This article was edited to note provincial investments to improve air ventilation systems in schools.

Noor Javed is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering city news with interest in 905 municipal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @njaved