A report by the Northwest Territories Department of Education, Culture and Employment is providing an early glimpse into the impacts the COVID-19 pandemic is having on students.
It raises a number of concerns, including declining kindergarten enrolment and negative trends in student well-being and development — and paints a bleak picture moving forward.
"The shift to remote learning, the limitations to connect with one's community and engage in after-school programming has had a negative impact on the well-being and academic experiences for most students," the report concluded.
"In the coming years, [the department] anticipates that grades, test results and graduation rates will be lower than in pre-pandemic years."
The report was published last week and compares data collected from the 2020-21 school year to the three previous school years.
"We recognize that there may be longer term consequences to those disruptions during the COVID years," John MacDonald, the deputy minister of Department of Education, Culture and Employment, told CBC News.
When it comes to enrolment in kindergarten, the numbers paint two different stories in the territory.
While enrolment in 2020-21 increased in Yellowknife by seven per cent, outside the capital, it dropped. In regional centres (Inuvik, Hay River and Fort Smith), enrolment declined by 13 per cent, while in small communities, it declined by 12 per cent.
"We're thinking that COVID certainly had a detrimental impact on enrolment, but we think that there may be a bounce-back," MacDonald said.
The report also used data from a survey filled out by kindergarten teachers to assess students' abilities to meet age-appropriate developmental expectations for Grade 1, known as the Early Development Instrument.
In 2020-21, about a third of Yellowknife students (29 per cent) were considered vulnerable. In small communities, more than half of students (57 per cent) were considered vulnerable.
In both cases, the percentages were slightly higher than pre-pandemic figures.
The report also used results from a survey of Grade 4 and Grade 7 students, known as the Middle Years Development Instrument (MDI).
There was no change in the well-being of Grade 4 students. Before the pandemic, just 30 per cent were considered to be thriving, a figure that remained unchanged in 2020-21.
Grade 7 students, however, saw a drop in the per cent of students who were considered to be thriving from 28 per cent in the years leading up to the pandemic down to 20 per cent in 2020-21.
The report says both grades also had declines in what the MDI calls "assets" to help them thrive, including having peer and adult relationships, after school activities and proper nutrition and sleep.
"A lot of our students depend on the schools for meals. A lot of them have breakfast programs and snacks available throughout the day. So I wouldn't be surprised whatsoever to know that," said Matthew Miller, president of the N.W.T. Teachers' Association.
The report notes high school course completion rates increased for students in Grade 10, 11 and 12 in 2021-22. But it says that is likely due to the fact fewer students were taking these courses, which resulted in a higher passing rate, and the fact that exams were optional. Less than 30 were written across the territory.
The report says the graduation rate in 2020-21 was 60 per cent across the territory, a slight increase in the three years prior to the pandemic.
The N.W.T.'s graduation rate allows students up to six years to complete high school, and notes the impact will be more prominent in 2022 and 2023.
Last month, Statistics Canada said the on-time graduation rate in the N.W.T. for 2019-20 was 46 per cent, the lowest figure in Canada (though no rate for Nunavut was provided). Canada-wide, the figure stood at 84 per cent.
The on-time graduation rate is the proportion of students who complete high school within three years of starting Grade 10.
"I think no matter what the graduation rate methodology, I think it's fair to say that we're not satisfied," MacDonald said.
The deputy minister said his department is focused on improving student outcomes and reducing the gap with the rest of the county.
He pointed to a switch to B.C. curriculum, which he said "will unlock a number of changes in terms of how students are taught and hopefully how they learn and how we train teachers in the system."
MacDonald says a review is also underway of a child and youth care counsellor program in partnership with Health and Social Services that is meant to address mental health challenges.
For Miller, the big question is how students will catch up. The most important thing, he said, is to get them in class.
"The number one thing that we have to do as a system — and this really involves the community and parents and guardians in general — is we have to improve student attendance rates, because if we don't get students in the building, it doesn't matter how great your teachers are. It doesn't matter about the resources or the bandwidth or devices. We need to make sure that we're getting students back into the classrooms," he said.
The report made little reference to attendance, noting it "was difficult to properly maintain in 2019-2020 through to 2021-2022 school period."