When I started teaching in 1998, I anticipated certain types of change that I would face during my career. I anticipated shifts in technology and I also expected that there would be periods during which the support of my employer, the Government of Ontario, would ebb and flow in and out of favour for teachers, sometimes leading to strike action like we saw during the 2019/20 school year. What no one could ever have expected was that education as we knew it would be flipped on its head when faced with teaching during a global pandemic. Humans are phenomenally adaptive, but the events of the last 13 months have forced us to adapt so quickly. Businesses have had to expand their ability to sell their services or products online under very difficult circumstances, but for those of us in education, how do we adapt when our “commodity” is learning and our clients are children?
As we near the end of this most challenging school year marked by constant shifts in protocols and procedures, I find myself thinking more than ever about our high school students and what the last year has been like for them. Those in grade 9 who just began high school this past September have encountered a social environment that is nothing like what they ever imagined high school would be. The students in grade 12 didn’t know it at the time, but high school as they knew it ended last March when they were partway though their grade 11 year. As for the students in the middle, those currently in grades 10 and 11, they are left wondering if high school will even return to “normal” before they finish. My own son in grade 11 summed it up this way, “Everything I ever liked about school is gone.”
As hard as it has been for the adults in education and younger students to change and adapt to the new systems, high school students have been dealt an especially short hand in all of this. There has been no semblance of normal for these kids since March 13, 2020. Across the province, school boards have been following a variety of delivery systems for high school this year. School boards that were allowed to maintain face-to-face learning had to adopt the “octomester” system. Under this model, students take one course at a time and must remain in the same room for the entire day. This prevents different cohorts of students from mixing throughout the school day. Among the boards that had to choose a hybrid learning model (some in-class time and the rest online) many opted for the “quadmester” model where students take two subjects at a time but only have in-person learning about one third of that time and the rest is online. I only know of two school boards, my own in Hamilton and York Region, that chose what is called the rotation model. Under this model a semester system where students take 4 courses at a time is maintained, but each course is entirely online except for one in-person rotation per course per semester that consists of 11 long periods every other day. We also do not have a separate virtual school in my board, so every teacher has a mixture of students in their classes – some who will attend the in-person rotation and others who are completing the entire course from home. As we moved through this school year, the number of students learning entirely from home increased steadily.
In short, each model has its benefits, but at the end of the day, none is even close to what we associate with a normal school day. There are no lunch hours in the cafeteria, no clubs, no teams and no excursions. At a time in their lives when they are wired to want to spend more and more time with their peers, this part of the school experience has been erased.
I decided to reach out to some of my educator friends from different corners of the province to see how their students are managing after more than a year of these upended learning conditions and here is what they shared.
My friend in Timmins shared her experiences working with both teens and adults.
Up until February 1st, I was teaching in person in an octomester high school system. Students changed classes about every 21 days. They preferred being in school to online but increasingly found the days very long even with many breaks given and a reduced workload. At the same time, some students preferred only having one class at a time on which to focus. They struggled with staying masked all day, especially when outdoor breaks and walks in the halls were forbidden after Christmas break. Walks have now been allowed again in the last month which has helped. Students found sitting all day with little to no opportunity to get up and move around (due to space constraints in most classrooms) very difficult to handle both mentally & physically. Almost 1/3 of our students chose to join our Distance Learning SS. Those with prior attendance issues chose that route for the most part, and their success rate has been very poor. Some students prefer the online delivery as they can work more at their own pace with few distractions. A small percentage of students in DLSS are choosing to work during school hours instead of attending school. This is difficult to monitor and negatively impacts student achievement as well. I am currently working at an Adult Education Centre. Course work is delivered online, but this is a challenge for many as they are not technologically skilled. So, we provide ILC printed booklets and an opportunity to scan work at the Centre. With the impending shut down this will likely affect course completion and graduation rates for our mature students.
Another friend who teaches in the London area shared the impact felt particularly by boys.
I am teaching in a hybrid quadmester system. Social workers at the school have noticed a marked increase in the number of high school boys who are struggling with mental health. I have noticed this in my classroom as well. They aren’t really “trained” to seek out social opportunities when their sports are cancelled. Many of them don’t leave the house very often, but then aren’t even connecting with others over videogames. My students have given me some positive outcomes, but by and large, they’ve all suffered more than benefited. This hybrid system is preferable to fully online, BUT it is still a far cry from being effective.
From my own school board, my friend described the situation among her grade 11 and 12 students.
Where do I start? There are a few students who are doing better than ever, but I haven’t had one student say that our rotational model is a good fit—quite the opposite. I often hear that they continually feel overwhelmed. The 40 minute classes in the afternoon feel rushed and they don’t have time to process, review and complete work. Most of my students have no problem with the morning class, although they did find the change this semester of needing to meet everyday more difficult in terms of managing their own time and getting work completed. Many have told me that during semester 1 they would use their non-cohort days to catch up on all classes.
I only have grade 11s and 12s this year – University and Open level which is like night and day. I have many students who are the sole income earner for their families while trying to achieve high marks for post secondary. There have been tears and countless hours of talking kids down. Anxiety is rampant. No confidence and no energy/motivation just compounds the difficulty for so many. It’s definitely heartbreaking.
Her own daughter started grade 9 this year in our school board, and this has been her experience.
I do get to watch Maddie trying to manage grade 9 and that has been eye-opening. She’s a super driven kid with all the support in the world, and even she’s overwhelmed. Thank goodness she has managed to stay active and has a wicked sense of humour to ground her. Watching her makes me wonder how the heck our students are doing who don’t have the same supports.
From my own school, a friend shared how her daughter felt last year when schools shut down and she was in grade 12 completing her last semester of high school.
My daughter was a mess in the spring. Her anxiety prevented her from being able to work. She would get settled to do work and just couldn’t stop her head from spinning in a thousand directions. Many tears. She learned how to crochet instead – made a few stuffed animals for her baby cousins and a cardigan for herself. She also planted a raised garden and started to plan a Bruce Trail month long trip that she will take in May.
Another friend from my own school who works with special education students describes their experiences.
Many of my students find the adaptive school model very challenging in terms of staying connected to teachers and peers, to their work and to the concept of school at all. Many of them are struggling to keep up with their school work and are unmotivated to work at home. Those in the most trouble are those who don’t come into the school at all – the disconnection isn’t just physical, it’s mental and emotional as well. They struggle to feel like school is real at all right now.
Aside from the kids struggling with their work, there are those struggling with increasingly serious mental health disorders: anxiety, depression, disaffection from school, OCD – all have increased in teens since Covid began. Credit accumulation is down for some of my students, but some are actually thriving in the home environment; it’s a smaller number to be sure, but kids with acute anxiety in the classroom are in some cases doing better because they don’t have to come in to the building.
Finally, a friend from my school shared a sobering email with me that one of grade 10 students sent to her.
I’m sending this email to let you all know that I am aware that I haven’t handed work in and that I am trying my best. I understand everyone is experiencing COVID right now, but I’m going to be as honest as possible and explain my point of view.
[Everyone] is saying that mental health is the most important thing. But at this point and time I feel like that’s just something they say. I have zero motivation to do my school work, I barely want to join my class meetings but I know if I don’t I’ll get even more lost.
Every day I wake up before school, join the first meeting and just sit there staring at my iPad once again for 2.5 hours trying to understand what’s happening in class. Then I have lunch and go back to bed for a bit because I was up super late, sometimes all night trying to do school. I wake up and join my next 3 classes, again staring at my iPad trying to understand. I get headaches by the time school ends because I’ve been staring at an electronic device all day with little sleep.
I also have a part time job on top of this which right now is the only thing I enjoy doing because I get social interaction with customers. After school I try to do something but end up staring at the class hub wondering why I can’t do it. When the weekend comes, you think it would be my free time and I could talk to my friends, but in reality I’m either in tears because I think I must be stupid if I can’t understand my work.
I’m sure some kids are excelling at online school, but that shouldn’t set an expectation for the other kids. I personally think there is still a large workload and not enough time to complete the work we’re given. I think me along with other kids could benefit from more work periods.
The stage I’m at now is just trying to get motivation to do something. I am usually a good student but after being online for a year it’s felt like I’ve been reliving the same day 24/7.
It took bravery and no doubt a fair amount of desperation for that student to share their true feelings. We can only assume that there are so many other kids out there who feel exactly the same way, but won’t feel safe enough to express themselves so honestly and openly.
For myself, because I have only taught grade 9 students this year, I have made a conscious effort to create chances for them to get to know each other. I encouraged them to share numbers and set up class group chats. I even allowed them time on a few occasions to play the game Among Us which was very popular in the fall. I try to remember to tell them that I’m proud of them for being flexible and adaptive and I encourage them to get out in the fresh air even when the weather isn’t so great. My students tell me that they are lonely, but some have used this imposed time spent at home to learn some new skills like cooking, chess and even calligraphy.
As with any other major, life-altering event we won’t understand what the full ramifications for our youth are until several years have passed. As the saying goes, you cannot see the forest for the trees, so we’ll have to wait until we’re out on the other side of the woods before we know what lasting effects the journey will have. I hope that as educators we can continue to listen to our high students and respond to their unique needs. It can be very difficult especially on days when we are also feeling lost and unmotivated. So long as our high school students understand that they are seen and we are trying to get through this with them and not despite them, I think we’re on the right path.
Part time teacher of French & Spanish, full time mother and wife. I love walking my dog, reading and travelling with my family when the world isn’t in the grips of a pandemic. If hoarding ever becomes truly necessary it will be coffee I stockpile, not toilet paper.