Is hybrid learning hurting your child? Experts say they need more data to figure out how to help

When virtual school launched in 2020, Tobias Scott knew it wouldn’t be ideal for his son, Philip — and when the boy’s Grade 1 teacher informed him his child was falling behind in reading, he felt it was up to him and his wife to fix it. 

“It slowly but surely fell apart. We pulled him offline and taught him from home and looked for tutors for him,” Scott said.

“Within the school system unfortunately there wasn’t much we were able to do.”

More than a year and a half into pandemic learning, teachers, researchers and parents like Scott are concerned about the lasting impact closures and disruptions will have on students. The province says it’s investing $85 million to help students recover from learning loss, and that public education investments are at “record levels.” But some experts say more data is needed to come up with solutions and they worry marginalized groups will be the most affected.

Scott says he’s noticed a huge improvement now that his son is back in the classroom — and he believes Philip has caught up — but he says it’s likely due to the work they put in as parents.

“Our time spent with him had a greater impact on improving his reading and vocabulary.”

Gap is widening, teachers’ unions warn

Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, says throughout the pandemic teachers have had to modify the way they teach several times, which has been a huge challenge.

“When you consider nine boards in Ontario are still offering or requiring hybrid learning where teachers are in the classroom with students and some students are remote on the computer, I don’t know how you actively or accurately assess their level or provide all the supports they need,” she said.

Littlewood believes it will take time to fully understand the effects of hybrid learning, but in the meantime it’s been very difficult for teachers to connect with students when they’re a “black square on a screen.”

“How do you assess how they’re feeling, if they need mental health support, what they need academically?” she said.

David Mastin, first vice-president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, calls the hybrid model “a disaster.”

David Mastin, left, is the first vice-president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. Karen Littlewood is the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. (Submitted by David Mastin and Karen Littlewood)

“We see the gap widening all the way from kindergarten to Grade 8,” he said, adding some of the challenges include students not having their camera on, a lack of engagement and not enough resources for extra help — including for the teachers themselves.

“We’ve received no support, no training, no professional development on how to deal with those changing environments at all. It’s extremely frustrating for all educators.”

He worries long-term it will be marginalized, racialized and students from lower income households who will suffer the most.

Data collection should be priority, experts say

Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, an assistant professor at Wilfred Laurier University, has been researching the pandemic’s impact on education. She’s disappointed in the lack of data.

“We don’t know very much at scale about how kids are doing,” she said, adding Ontario had the longest school closures in the country.

“There’s a concern some kids have gone missing altogether. So we need data on attendance.”

She says so far, international research has shown early reading and writing skills aren’t up to speed, while math is more of an issue for older kids.

Kathryn Underwood, a professor with the school of early childhood studies at Ryerson University, has also been researching the effects of the pandemic on children — particularly those with disabilities or who access special education. She says the results so far have been mixed.

“We really don’t have information about what the long-term impact of this will be. We know for sure some children have really struggled.”

She said for some students who had a tough time in the school environment, things improved.

“If we’re going to try to address inequality we should use the opportunity to learn from those children who have done better in online environments as well.”

That sentiment is shared by Nicki Casseres, who has a son in Grade 10 with high functioning autism spectrum disorder. When he was able to create his own learning environment, he flourished.

“He started getting really good marks and he’s now completely engaged in school,” she said. Casseres said her son used to say he didn’t have a lot of hope about his future. Online learning changed that.

“Now he’s starting to think about what he can do; like go to university, college, be an actor, doctor, business person … he’s dreaming,” she said.

“Not everyone fits into the education box as it was before.”

Investments at record levels, province says 

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said the province is investing $85 million to help students recover from learning loss with supports for mental health, math and reading.

“For the second year in a row, we have also invested over $300 million to hire more staff to support students in Ontario schools. In addition, our government is investing an additional $80 million in mental health supports, staffing, and specialized intervention,” the statement reads.

It adds the ministry announced the largest summer learning program in Ontario history and expanded access to teacher-led tutoring for children in both English and French.  

The ministry says it knows it has more to do, but investments in public education are at “record levels to bridge learning gaps and protect students.”

But Gallagher-Mackay believes the recovery plans across the country fall short, and says while it may be grades on paper right now, the implications later could be much bigger.

“We’re not investing enough in helping ensure kids don’t have long term effects from these closures … which will have a lifetime impact on their earnings and the Canadian GDP.”

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