Educators are growing concerned about the impact of a hybrid remote and in-class learning approach for high-school students as early reports from several parts of the country suggest a drop in academic performance.

High-school education has shifted dramatically this academic year, involving less classroom time as students stay home and learn remotely and, in many cases, have to complete course material over a fewer number of weeks. Students’ marks and credit accumulation is an emerging worry among educators and parents as the pandemic’s toll becomes increasingly visible.

“We’re not doing as well as last year. That’s a concern,” said Bill Torrens, superintendent of student achievement at the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. “We’re trying to understand how to make sure we’re keeping all students engaged in learning … and staying on track.”

The board looked at students’ midterm marks and found the failure rate in courses was 16 per cent, almost double what it was at the same time last year. That means many more students are at risk of not earning their course credits at the end of January, which has long-term impacts on graduation rates.

In Quebec, the provincial association of school administrators has raised alarm that about three times as many students as usual have failing marks across all grade levels, including secondary.

Mr. Torrens said final exams in Hamilton-Wentworth are cancelled and high-school teachers will focus on “credit rescue activities” for students. “We’ve really shifted the focus of those five days to helping kids to be in a position to earn their credits,” he said.

In Quebec, the provincial association of school administrators has raised alarm that about three times as many students as usual have failing marks across all grade levels, including secondary.

Students struggled with online learning in the spring when schools closed, educators said. With online attendance often not as high as it is for in-class learning, it can be harder to earn credits. Alberta has temporarily moved its high-school students online full-time to deal with the second wave of the virus and some education experts worry others might could do the same, and that it could have a negative impact on student achievement.

Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, a researcher and co-author of Pushing the Limits: How Schools Can Prepare Our Children Today for the Challenges of Tomorrow, said high-school students tend to be learners that are more independent than younger children and therefore the thinking is that they can easily move online.

“It’s really risky,” she said. Ms. Gallagher-Mackay said students who are not engaged in their learning tend to drop out.

Not all school boards noted issues in academic performance, but several also told The Globe and Mail it was too early to measure.

“We count the COVID-19 numbers in days. We count educational harm in years,” Ms. Gallagher-Mackay said.

Louise Sirisko, director of education at the York Region District School Board in Ontario, said analyzing the first semester mid-term data “we’ve observed that more students have credits at risk now than we did at this time last year.”

Ms. Sirisko said a number of factors could be contributing to how students perform, including worry about the pandemic, mental health issues and not being in the physical classroom all-day. She said staff will look at different interventions for struggling students over the next few days. “It’s going to be all hands on deck,” she said.

In Quebec, the association of school administrators recently quizzed all 20 of its regional representatives in the province, who surveyed a sample of teachers in each region. The results are not scientific, but they found averages are down and a failure rate of about 30 per cent, compared with 10 per cent in a normal year.

“It’s a preliminary evaluation, but it’s clear and consistent,” said Nicolas Prévost, president of the association. “We don’t know the cause. It could be increased use of online learning, it could be all the time used to catch up from last year. But it was consistent across the regions.”

Tim Cusack, deputy superintendent of Edmonton Catholic Schools, said “students performed as well as can be expected in the first quarter.” He said teachers provided support and extended opportunities for students to complete credit requirements.

Educators have also accommodated struggling students as much as possible, said Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. He said that while he doesn’t expect a “massive increase” in failure rates, students are also getting a condensed curriculum. “It will definitely take some time to catch up on the deficits created by teaching during the pandemic,” he said.

Jansen Sinnathamby, a Grade 12 student in Surrey, B.C., said the condensed nature of the quadmester, where students take two classes at a time, has been overwhelming for him and others. His region, the Fraser Health region, has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and Mr. Sinnathamby missed two weeks of school because he went into self-isolation. There was no work sent home during that time, he said, and his French mark suffered. He said that he moved it higher after working late into the night to catch up.

“I’d like to say I’m doing well, but I know I could be doing better,” he said.

Greg Thomas, a professor in the department of secondary education at the University of Alberta, said many students need to be in the classroom, not only to learn, but also to interact with peers.

“All of those things when you move the students out of the school have the potential to impact their achievement,” he said.

Vancouver parent Niki Boyd said her daughter, who just started high school, is generally a strong student, but she worries about how her experience this year will affect her education. Her daughter only spends less than two hours at school a day, and then, depending on the teacher, is assigned work at home.

“I’m concerned that there’s going to be a real shortfall at the end of this year or whenever we emerge from this,” she said. “I’m worried that she’ll be behind. Then there’ll be another [challenge] for both students and teachers to make up for that. I don’t know how that’s going to look. I’m concerned. I really am concerned.”

The Globe and Mail, December 10, 2020