Shannon Terry's son has been attending school virtually since kindergarten, when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Now in Grade 2, his development is fair, but she realized recently he doesn't know where to put capital letters.
"I forgot to teach him uppercase letters when he was in kindergarten," she said. "Everything was closed in the second half of his kindergarten year, and that was something that wasn't covered, and I forgot."
Terry calculates that 20 per cent of her son's entire school career has been online. He also has some speech issues and was seeing a speech pathologist in school. With that not being reliably accessible, she said, she's had to hire one herself.
The Riverview parent has been doing her best to make sure he and his 12-year-old sister are keeping up, but she's anxious about what impact online school will have on their education long term.
School has been closed to in-person learning since last week, with the province promising a return to school on Jan. 31 once lockdown is lifted.
"They love going to school. But … when you start to miss time and you're off from school, you start to lose the motivation," Terry said.
Paul Bennett, the director of the Schoolhouse Institute and an adjunct professor of education at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, said students in New Brunswick have missed 21 weeks on in-person school over the course of 22 months.
"That's a substantial chunk of time," he told Information Morning Moncton.
Bennett said Terry's experience is an accurate, even mild, reflection of what all students and parents are going through in the last two years.
"Her children are good students and she sees them losing ground," he said.
He said parents whose kids have learning disabilities and others who have rigid work schedules are struggling even more to keep their kids on track.
He said New Brunswick deserves some recognition for reopening schools to in-person learning for students who need extra attention or have learning disabilities, but the toll is high for them and their families as well.
"Wherever you look, families in whatever situation they're in are struggling mightily, and it's called COVID fatigue," he said. "It's set in. It's causing all kinds of problems on the home front."
Is evidence is there students are falling behind?
Bennett said most of the evidence for loss of learning has been anecdotal in New Brunswick, but there other parts of the country where studies have proven the problem.
Two school districts in Alberta and some in Ontario have done studies that show "significant loss in terms of reading capacity and progress in learning how to read," he said.
"These are fundamentals and not something that we can take lightly."
New Brunswick is not the worst in terms of in-school time lost. He said in Ontario, students have lost 28 weeks, the highest in North America.
But some areas are doing remarkably better, he said. In British Columbia, students have lost between eight and nine weeks. Bennett said this is a reflection of the collaboration between the government and the teachers' federation in that province to keep schools open.
Practical advice for parents
Bennett said for most parents, all they can do is their best. And while they may feel they've exhausted all avenues, he recommends they consider the following if they haven't done so yet:
Establish a morning routine with regular morning habits and breaks in between.
Schedule short periods of instruction or learning. About 10 to 20 minutes for Kindergarten to Grade 2, and no more than 30 to 35 minutes of Grades 4 to 9. For secondary school, make sure they're completing their assignments.
Build in the time for outdoor exercise. Nature studies, map making and exploring the outdoors could help break the monotony while learning something new.
For older grades, focus on project work with rewards, like scrap booking as it's "low organization."
Bennett also said there are free online resources that can take the pressure off parents.
The Core Knowledge Foundation has downloadable curriculum, flip books and activities for kids.
For math and science, Khan Academy provides short videos on math basics and science for all ages.
JUMP Math also provides online lessons.
For some activities go to TVOKids.com and use ScienceXplosion videos to help students engage with science and get into coding.
Bennett said "everyone's been stretched to the limit," including teachers and school district staff, but he hopes the province will soon turn its attention to how to catch kids up to what they've missed.
He said some options include weekend activities and intensive makeup sessions at schools once they reopen.
Terry said she's been keeping her head down and just surviving.
"It's been two years and I keep saying, 'Oh, it'll be fine. Next month, it'll be better. It's all good now,'" she said. "I find talking with friends and family and stuff. It's people's anxiety levels that are just like either we're giving up or we're really high strung."