Pandemic cause of major learning gaps with students, superintendent says

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Anglophone South School District superintendent Zoe Watson says the province's inclusion policy does not permit public schools to use retention as a standard education practice. (Julia Wright / CBC - image credit)
Anglophone South School District superintendent Zoe Watson says the province's inclusion policy does not permit public schools to use retention as a standard education practice. (Julia Wright / CBC - image credit)

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused numerous learning gaps for students and forced teachers to make more adjustments because of it, the superintendent of the Anglophone South School District says.

Zoe Watson said more parents were inquiring about children being held back a year last year because of the three-month school closures.

This year, some parents have chosen to home-school their children, and others have stayed home all year because of health concerns. Some students attended, but parents chose to keep them home during the red and orange phase of COVID-19 restrictions.

"It's been a difficult year for families, for students and for our teachers," Watson said.

Rothesay woman desperate for son to be held back

Watson made the comments while responding to a Rothesay mom's fight to hold her son back a grade level after she was told he would be promoted to Grade 2, despite arguing he isn't ready.

Tanya White is desperate for her six-year-old son Nikki, who has high-functioning autism spectrum disorder and is developmentally delayed, to repeat Grade 1.

Nikki can't read and missed eight and a half months of school. Because of his father's health issues, the family has been living on a roller coaster since last May, "surviving moment to moment, day by day," White said.

Tanya White has been struggling to keep her son Nikki in Grade 1 this fall, but was told by the Anglophone South School District, that it's not possible. From left to right: Eldest son Drew, 25, Tanya, Patrick, Luke, 16, Liam,14. Second row: Zachary, nine, Nikki, six, and Teehan,11.
Tanya White has been struggling to keep her son Nikki in Grade 1 this fall, but was told by the Anglophone South School District, that it's not possible. From left to right: Eldest son Drew, 25, Tanya, Patrick, Luke, 16, Liam,14. Second row: Zachary, nine, Nikki, six, and Teehan,11.(Judith Mattie/Submitted)

Nikki returned to school in January of 2021, and his father died a month later. White said she is appealing the decision to promote her son to Grade 2.

Watson wouldn't speak to White's specific case but said the district has seen an uptick in questions about students repeating a grade since the pandemic started a little over a year ago.

She said school districts across the province are seeing fewer students held back because of the province's inclusive policy.

Retention 'not a standard of practice'

During an interview with Information Morning Saint John, she referred to a section in New Brunswick's 2013 inclusive policy about grade retention.

"In New Brunswick, public schools are not to use retention as a standard education practice," she said.

However, she did say that if a student is retained, they must be placed on a personalized learning plan, where educators would have to give details on teaching strategies and different teaching approaches in the second year of a grade level.

Watson said students who are promoted to the next grade level are capable of making educational gains.

"However … their learning problems must be addressed and we cannot continue to just pass them along," she said.

Watson said supports also have to be put in place, such as curriculum and the amount of work received.

Nikki and his father Patrick, one month before his dad died in February.
Nikki and his father Patrick, one month before his dad died in February.(Tanya White/Submitted)

"It may not be in everything," she said. "Maybe it's a literacy issue. Maybe it's a numeracy issue. This allows the teacher to target instruction."

Watson said she understands there are different views and opinions about retaining a student to a particular grade level.

When she was working as a teacher in the Sussex area, Watson said, more students were retained. Sometimes, a student might be kept back twice.

"As I reflect back on many cases, it didn't always give us the desired outcome," she said. "Sometimes as students got older, it would lead to disengagement and attendance issues."

Learning problems need to be addressed

Education Minister Dominic Cardy said Monday the province is reviewing its inclusion policy.

Early last year, Cardy called for a review of New Brunswick's inclusive education policy while on a province-wide tour seeking feedback on his green paper on education reform.

He was also calling to group students from kindergarten to Grade 2 together.

Watson reiterated that if a parent isn't happy with a decision to promote their child to another grade, there is an appeal process with the district, parents and the school.

"At the end of the day the learning problems that the child is having need to be addressed," Watson said.