By: Fardowsa Ahmed (Mommy Monitor’s Youth Subcommittee)
Dr. Kwame McKenzie, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, recently stated that “COVID-19 is not the great equalizer- it discriminates,” which is further reflected by the effects of COVID-19 on student learning.
Seven months into the pandemic in Canada, it is clear that COVID-19 has had an impact on student learning and retention. For example, it has lowered the total number of school days, and in a 2015 Swedish study, this was shown to have a huge, negative impact on student test scores.
For post-secondary students undergoing online learning, many professors have opted to reduce lecture times, and condense three-hour lectures into two hours, or even one-hour. Consequently, students have less contact time with instructors— and contact time is also essential to learning.
Student assessments have also switched from in-person to online. This change creates a sense of uncertainty among students, who must quickly adjust to online learning. Ontario high schools recently cancelled exams for grade 12 students. While the decision provides a solution to some concerns raised, it also means that parents, children and teachers are venturing into unknown territory. University and college admissions have traditionally evaluated students using grades partly determined by exams. Teachers will have to find effective methods of evaluation, and students will have to adapt to this within a short time frame.
The loss of learning is especially evident in math courses. Research shows that students returned to school during the pandemic having only retained 50% of the math learning gains they had earned from the previous year. This means that they are already behind, even before beginning the school year.
So, it should come as no surprise then that students are predicted to have lower achievement throughout the course of the pandemic. However, there are still a number of other critical factors to consider— such as who is expected to be especially impacted by the ongoing effects of COVID-19.
For example, COVID-19 has been shown to have a gendered effect on education. Dishearteningly, decades of progress made towards improvements in girls’ education have been halted and reversed during the pandemic. Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai notes that: “In a crisis like COVID-19, girls and young women are the first to be removed from school and the last to return.”
The Malala Fund has released new research which shows 743 million girls are missing out on their education entirely, while up to 20 million secondary school-aged girls may never return to school, even after the pandemic ends. Further still, the new Global Girlhood Report 2020, brings dire warning that due to school closures, 500,000 girls face the threat of being forced into child marriage.
The pandemic may also impact student access to jobs in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Currently, we know that math forms a critical foundation for STEM subjects. Yet, individuals from low-income backgrounds and ethnic minorities are underrepresented across STEM careers. Despite an over-saturated job market in some fields, overall careers in STEM fields continue to grow. A recent study from the University of Toronto highlighted that: “The most essential factor for students to be able to continue with high school math and science courses, which are required by university STEM programs is the grade a student earns in a previous class.”
This means that in the short term, the overall loss of learning in mathematics throughout the pandemic will directly impact the makeup of next year’s STEM classes. Data from 2004/09 in the United States shows that while 13 percent of white STEM majors dropped out of university, an alarming 26 percent of black students and 20 percent of Latinx students dropped out. So, we can expect the pandemic to worsen already low representation of students from minority backgrounds in STEM fields.
New post-secondary graduates are also predicted to begin their careers in the midst of a recession— which can have irreversible consequences. According to a study from 2012: “Graduates from programs with high predicted earnings can compensate for their poor starting point through both within- and across-firm earnings gains, but graduates from other programs that are projected to have lower earnings often experience permanent earnings losses from graduating in a recession.” The effect on earnings can continue socioeconomic inequality.
Ultimately, the impact of COVID-19 on education is most certainly fated to magnify inequalities, particularly within marginalized communities. To combat this, a paradigm shift is needed. Educators, policymakers, and governments have now seen glaring differences in access to educational resources during the pandemic—but these disparities already existed prior to the pandemic. These issues need to be addressed while they are still in the spotlight.
Despite the ripple effect that has been set in motion by the pandemic, the issues we see in present day cannot be entirely attributed to the COVID-19. Rather, the pandemic has highlighted pre-existing issues within our educational institutions. The effects of socio-economic disparities, marginalization, and gender inequality are now blindingly obvious. Only by addressing these issues at the root cause —by fighting systemic inequality and working towards equity—do we stand to make change. Perhaps then, at last, COVID-19 can become the impetus for strong strides towards equity in education.
The following are resources that students in K-12 can make use of at the Toronto Public Library:
*Please note: Live homework assistance requires a library card.
For strategies and techniques to improve online learning, there are the following resources:
At Visions of Science, children from black and racialized communities are engaged in STEM from grades 3-7 and can receive hands-on experience learning science, math, technology and engineering via online STEM clubs, while post-secondary students from minority backgrounds can volunteer virtually as STEM program facilitators.
Students in K-12 can also receive free one-on-one tutoring through the Parsec Youth Network, while post-secondary students can volunteer as tutors and gain valuable volunteer experience.
For post-secondary students seeking financial assistance, the following websites offer a directory of available scholarships: