Graeme Hopkins had never imagined failing a class, so it came as a shock when it happened last year as he was struggling with his modified high-school schedule.
"I had no idea really how to react or how to process it," said the Grade 12 student at Evan Hardy Collegiate in Saskatoon.
The 17-year-old's high school was one of many across the country that moved to condensed timetables due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
To keep students in cohorts and minimize contacts, pandemic-altered schedules have them learn fewer subjects at one time, but spend much longer in each class daily. Yet students must also progress quickly through those subjects before moving onto different courses, since they're expected to take the same total number of courses across the school year overall.
While some schools resumed a normal semester system this year, Saskatoon high schools went from a quint system, with five terms per year, into a quarter one. This means students now take three classes a day — two of them 132 minutes long. The two longer classes change to new ones about every two months, while the third is an hour long and runs the length of a traditional semester.
These condensed schedules, used in Ontario as well, are taking a toll, say both students and school staff. Though some regions are planning to resume more normal timetables based on local public health advice, others are sticking with the modified ones for the rest of the school year.
Hopkins says he went through burnout, anxiety, and low self-esteem issues last year. He hopes sharing his story can help others going through the same experience.
"There was almost no joy in my life," he said. "What made it even worse was that I thought I was so alone because nobody was talking about it, at least not that I knew of."
Hopkins says math and science courses are impacted most by the compressed schedule.
"You're thrown into tests and quizzes without really being prepared at all just because you haven't had that time to study or to work out any issues you may have with understanding the concepts," he said.
He plans to take an extra year of high school to accommodate the math and science courses he has left.
Ontario plans shift in February
Meanwhile, Ontario high schoolers are currently taking two classes a day, for two-and-a-half hours each. Some schools are on the quadmester system, with subjects changing to a pair of new classes every 10 weeks.
Other schools opted for a "modified semester" system, where students cycle between taking two subjects one week before switching to a pair of different ones the next. The pivoting lasts the length of a traditional semester.
At a press conference this past Thursday, Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce announced that Ontario high schools will "resume a regular timetable model of four courses a day starting in Term 2."
Lecce also said that "if a school board has the support of their local public health unit to change their timetabling," then that change may come earlier.
Diana Wang-Martin, a Mississauga, Ont., chemistry teacher, says she's happy schedules are going back to normal in Ontario and hopes her school can make the change as quickly as possible.
She notes that her students haven't been allowed to perform labs due to the pandemic, which only compounds the issue of long classes.
"Imagine doing science where the students are expecting hands-on labs, and hands-on activities, but instead they get to just sit at their desk for two-and-a-half hours every class," she said.
WATCH | Teachers, high schoolers frustrated with condensed school schedules:
Wang-Martin also said that in 20 years of teaching she had never seen so many students "with mental health problems, just from the pure exhaustion of having to deal with not just a pandemic, but also with [the modified semester] learning model."
School trustee lauds return to normal
Cathy Abraham is president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association and also a school board trustee in Clarington, Ont. Her organization had been advocating for a change and she says the return to normal is "really good news for students, and it's really good news for teachers."
Abraham believes that, depending on what timetable they have now, some boards could return even sooner than February, when the second term begins.
For instance, because it's using the modified semester system and has a high vaccination rate among 12- to 17-year-olds, she thinks Halton Regional District School Board is an example of one that could make a schedule change early.
Saskatoon commits for the year
Back in Saskatoon, however, it appears many high school students will continue with condensed timetables this school year.
Paul Janzen, superintendent of Saskatoon Public Schools, says local public health advice suggested it would be important to maintain some type of cohort system in advance of this fall. Saskatoon's quarter system is based on a blend of that advice and feedback from a survey given to students, teachers and caregivers on their experiences from last year's quint system.
"We told our schools three groups of students max per day to meet," Janzen said, noting that some high schools have been able to be creative in their scheduling of Grade 9 students, allowing them to take more than three courses at a time.
He says the district will be looking closely at academic data such as credit attainment rate from the recently completed first quarter, but says that there are no plans to make changes before the school year is through.
The district will go through the same feedback process as before and re-evaluate things after the school year, he said.
Meanwhile, Hopkins was inspired to act this past summer, starting a petition demanding his school board to return to normal semesters. While the academic impact of these changes have been challenging, the experience has given him new perspective.
"I used to be very privileged: I had a normal education, everything was fine, struggles were few and far between," he said.
"But now that I've had such a kind of experience where I've had such catastrophic impacts on myself, where I've gone through so much of this as a result of a timetable, I feel more empathetic to other people."