How the Waterloo Region District School Board is preparing to deal with students’ learning gaps

·4 min read

Over a year into remote learning, Jennifer West-Barker is noticing a visible difference between her son and daughter, both of whom are in high school. Her daughter has thrived with remote learning, getting all of her work done most days in under half an hour, while her son has failed two high school classes.

“My son has been having a really hard time with remote learning,” West-Barker said. “He’s having a hard time doing any school work and staying on long calls.”

West-Barker’s son is far from being the only student who is struggling. A report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization notes that more than 800 million students are experiencing major disruptions in their schooling.

A CBC survey of 159 educators shows that the majority of teachers were behind schedule for teaching the curriculum, with three-quarters of teachers admitting that fewer students are meeting the learning objectives.

Waterloo Region District School Board superintendent Ron DeBoer said teachers noticed that during remote learning teen and preteen Grade 7 and 8 students were disengaged from virtual learning. “Grade 7 and 8 students were not showing up to their virtual classes, or would come but would have their camera turned off and would not engage with the learning,” DeBoer said.

In response, the school board created a separate class for those students, called a Re-Engagement Class. The classes were exclusively for the disengaged students and was staffed with youth workers, special education teachers, and outdoor educators.

This is just one of many actionable steps the school board has in place to engage with the learning gaps students might be facing during summer school and the coming school year. Board superintendent Evelyn Giannopoulos said that without a doubt schools are anticipating learning gaps in students, and that they are more than prepared to handle them.

“We are adept, skilled and able to identify student learning needs through a variety of diagnostic assessment data and then respond accordingly,” Giannopoulos said. Diagnostic assessments can help educators adequately see where kids are achieving and where gaps might be present, Giannopoulos said.

Some students are taking advantage of their summer break to close the gap. The school board is offering Transition Support classes that students can take to upgrade their numeracy and literacy skills. One thousand students in Grades 6 to 8 have already signed up for the class this summer.

There’s been a particular focus on the transition from elementary to high school, which can be tricky for students even under the best of circumstances. The Reach Ahead course, also available to Grade 8 students, teaches students study skills that will assist them in high school as well as numeracy and literacy skills.

“A year ago when we were going virtual in the summertime, a lot of people thought that students would have screen fatigue and unless they had to be in school, that they wouldn’t be in school,” DeBoer said. “But the desire for families to close some of those gaps outweighed the concern of students being on their computers all summer again.”

There’s also been a noticeable increase in communication between secondary schools and elementary schools in getting ready for the 2021-2022 school year. The board established a team of teachers and guidance counsellors who are sharing the report cards, reading records and EQAO assessments of Grade 8 students to Grade 9 teachers in order to ensure teachers are equipped to deal with the gaps.

It’s hard to know exactly how students have been individually impacted by the pandemic, says DeBoer. “We as educators know this isn’t just a Fall of 2021 approach to meet the needs of these students.

"We are going to have a lot of work to do over the next number of years because this pandemic will have probably impacted student learning in many ways.”

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: With Ontario announcing that schools would not return to in-person learning until September 2021, the Cambridge Times decided to look into how the Waterloo Region District School Board would inevitably grapple with learning gaps in students due to a year and a half of remote learning.

Genelle Levy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cambridge Times

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