Eduvation Blog

Surprise!  K-12 Learning Losses

Good morning, and TGIF!

Today, outdoorsy types can celebrate bicycles and insect repellant, or climb a hill in honour of Mount Chimborazo. (Besides being Indigenous History Month and Pride Month, June is after all Great Outdoors Month, National Camping Month, Guitars on the Beach Month, and – oh yeah – International Mud Month.)

But if you’re more inclined to hang out on the couch in the A/C, you may choose instead to honour Country Cooking, Soul Food, Dairy, Iced Tea, or Candy this month – and today specifically, you can consume more calories than you burn in honour of National Donut Day, World Cider Day, or Chocolate Macaroon Day.

And as a Canadian born in England, I would be remiss not to also mention that the UK is smack in the middle of a 4-day holiday to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee, marking 70 years on the throne. Landmarks across the Commonwealth will be lit purple to mark the milestone.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reviewing some of the surprising impacts of the pandemic on CdnPSE, from the surprisingly nimble pivot online and the startling lack of gap year deferrals, to the asymmetric impacts of the digital divide and some early indicators of PSE learning losses.

All of those affected CdnPSE in 2020, 2021 and 2022 – but today I want to turn to some pandemic repercussions that will impact our incoming classes from now until 2035…


K-12 Learning Losses

Future PSE students’ academic and social preparation has been impacted by 2 years of intermittent and unpredictable pandemic disruption, including pivots to emergency remote learning or even home schooling in primary and secondary grades, and deferred or skipped preschool and kindergarten enrolments. The post-COVID generation of students (whether you call them Gen C or Gen Alpha) will arrive on PSE campuses between now and 2035, with participation rates and academic preparedness impacted to varying degrees by the pandemic…

School Closures

In the first year of the pandemic (Mar 2020 – May 2021), most Canadian provinces and territories closed K-12 schools for 16-18 weeks in total – although Quebec schools were closed for just 8 weeks, while Alberta closed secondary schools for 19 weeks, and Ontario for a total of 20 weeks. In many school districts, parents had the option to enroll their children in remote education for the 2020-21 academic year, too, and in Ontario’s Peel District, 49% of elementary students or parents opted for such virtual classes. From province to province, school district to school district, disruptions of in-person learning took varying forms depending upon the local epidemiological situation. Statistics are not yet available for Canada, but in the US, NCES data showkindergarten enrolments fell 9% in 2020, and pre-school enrolments fell 22%, as parents opted out during crucial developmental years for their children. (Chances are, the pandemic had similar impacts on Canadian parents debating pre-school.)

“In a matter of months, Canada went from a mandatory, universal school system to a patchwork of many models.”Irvin Studin, president, Institute for 21st Century Questions

Lags, Not Losses

During the pandemic, economic, social and psychological pressures have demonstrably affected K-12 student learning, and of course disadvantaged students experienced the largest additional setbacks in reading or language acquisition. Many students have not so much forgotten learning as fallen behind: academic growth and development have continued, but a “learning lag” has appeared relative to expected progress. The impact will be particularly severe on those in their earliest, formative years of education: early readers in grades 1 and 2, and kindergarten students. The pandemic has disrupted crucial months for developing skills and confidence in fine motor movements, socio-emotional interaction, and early reading. McKinsey pointed out that the 2020-21 school year was “as a whole perhaps one of the most challenging for educators and students” in history, leaving US elementary students up to 7 months behind in “unfinished learning.” Some students disengaged completely and will need to repeat a grade, while others merely learned less than normal.

“Students faced multiple schedule changes, were assigned new teachers midyear, and struggled with glitchy internet connections and Zoom fatigue. This was a uniquely challenging year… [that] has left its mark – on student learning, and on student well-being.”McKinsey & Company, Jul 2021

K-12 learning setbacks will impact the preparedness of future PSE students, although the precise scale of the setback varies around the world…

Quantifying Losses

Students in the UK are thought to have lost one-third of their learning during the pandemic, and in the Netherlands, those from disadvantaged homes lost 60% more. In Uganda, experts believe that 70-80% of students have been unable to learn online at all, and may require an entire year to recover their learning loss. Across Canada, 75% of K-12 teachers reported they were behind schedule in covering the curriculum in Spring 2021. One US study found that declines in student learning during 2020-21 correlated to the duration of school closures: passing grades on spring 2021 tests declined just 2% in states with few closures like Wyoming, but up to 32% in Virginia. Extrapolating from learning losses during summer interruptions and the 1916 polio pandemic, UQAM researchers estimate that a 3-month disruption due to the pandemic could increase the socioeconomic skills gap of 15-year-olds across Canada by 30% or more, and significantly impact high school persistence and attainment. (They didn’t consider the ameliorating impact of online learning, but also vastly underestimated the duration of COVID19 disruptions in 2020-2022.)

“It may take years to fully measure and comprehend the effects of the pandemic on children and youth, as some of these effects, such as potential learning loss, could have long-lasting consequences.”Statistics Canada, The Daily, Mar 15 2021

Unfair Advantages

Wealthy parents, particularly in major urban centres, have found private ways to replace in-person schooling for their children, or augment online classes, during the worst of the pandemic…


Private Schools: Already, about 280,000 Canadian children, the most privileged 5.6%, attend about 1,700 independent K-12 schools. Those private schools have smaller class sizes, high-quality ventilation systems, and often spacious grounds that permitted them to keep in-person classes longer than many public schools – as well as more plentiful and sophisticated technologies for online learning. As a result, a national Leger poll in Dec 2021 found that 82% of parents with children in independent schools said their child’s education was “minimally impacted,” or that their child was just “behind a little,” due to the pandemic – compared to 64% of public school parents. Unsurprisingly, independent schools reported a surge of parent interest in 2021, and in some cases, enrolments rose 50% or more in a single year.


Homeschooling: Although homeschooling is less popular, interest has more than tripled during the pandemic, when many parents were helping their children with online lessons anyway. In the US, from a pre-pandemic average of 3% of households with children, home schooling rose to 5.4% by May 2020, and doubled again to 11.1% by October 2020. (I haven’t seen stats for Canada.)


Private Tutoring: A “shadow education system” has emerged in some cities, in which small groups of parents collectively hire an in-person teacher for their children in a home “pandemic pod,” or turn to tutoring services to remedy learning losses. Socioeconomically advantaged students, who lost less ground academically and psychologically during the pandemic anyway, have also (naturally) been the most likely to benefit from private tutoring. Globally, the tutoring industry is estimated at $123.8B in 2020, and the Canadian market is forecast to grow by 6.8% annually.

PSE Preparation

There are already worrying signs that the COVID crop of K-12 students may be less likely to graduate high school or enroll in PSE…

US Warning Signs

By Fall 2020, American school districts were reporting 40% or more of high school students were failing at least one class – historically a proven indicator that students are at-risk for graduation and progression to PSE. Chronic K-12 absenteeism (more than 10%) has also been established as a clear contraindication of eventual PSE transition. By summer 2021, McKinsey calculated that chronic absenteeism among US high school students had doubled during the pandemic, and could drive up to 1.2M more students to drop out of school altogether. After the Delta wave that Fall, McKinsey revised their estimate upwards, to predict that up to 3.3M more high schoolers might drop out in the years ahead due to pandemic disruptions.

Canadian Difference?

In Canada, data are much more limited, but some already seem to contradict the US experience. After 2 months of school closures in Spring 2020, HEQCO found that grade 12 students in Toronto achieved 4.1%higher course grades than the cohort prior, and 3.5% more than usual earned enough credits to graduate. This could indicate improved engagement and learning – but some experts believe it reflects more compassionate grading and exam policies. Colleges and universities are being cautioned that they will need to identify and address skill and knowledge gaps among entering students in 2021 and 2022. “Early data… suggests that our most reliable predictors of student outcomes – grades and credit accumulation – have been destabilized.” Even pre-pandemic, grade inflation and social promotion policies in K-12 were being blamed for inadequate academic preparedness of incoming university students.

“Early data… suggests that our most reliable predictors of student outcomes – grades and credit accumulation – have been destabilized.” Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and Robert Brown, HEQCO study, Jul 2021

Learning Remediation

Many experts know what it will take to remediate pandemic learning losses in K-12 – and it won’t come cheap. Educational research has demonstrated that supplemental tutoring, delivered by paraprofessionals 3x a week or more, can help overcome academic inequities exacerbated by COVID19 school closures. While the UK and US “have made investments in tutoring central to their pandemic recovery,” and Alberta promised $45 millionto support students in grades 1-3, most Canadian teachers are attempting to manage wider learning differences than ever with unchanged curriculum. (That challenge is why 75% of Canadian K-12 teachers reported they were behind schedule in covering the curriculum in Spring 2021, and 70% worried that students would never catch up.) UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank are urging the world’s educators to reassess student learning levels with diagnostic tests, consolidate curriculum accordingly, extend instructional time by prolonging the school day or the academic year, and improve learning efficiency through targeted instruction, structured pedagogy, small-group tutoring and self-guided learning programs. Three Ontario experts have recommended a youth service or work-integrated learning approach, to engage college seniors or graduates in tutoring. Doug Ford’s government promised to invest an additional $93M this year for Special Education Grants to school boards, as well as $15M for expanded summer learning opportunities, $90M in mental health investments, and $304M in short-term additional staffing, to hire an estimated 3,000 teachers, ECE educators, educational assistants and other front-line workers. ($175M will “expand access to free publicly-funded tutoring in small groups after school, during school, on weekends and over the summer.”) During the election campaign, Ontario’s Liberals promised to bring back the option of Grade 13 for the next 4 years, to help students catch up on lost opportunities during the pandemic. And just yesterday, Alberta’s governmentannounced $110M more over the next 3 years for “mental health, specialized assessments and learning loss supports” for children and youth.

“Rather than investing in system-level educational recovery, Canada has relied on unsupported front-line educators to meet students’ growing needs while grappling with new technologies and delivery modes, pandemic outbreaks and their own individual struggles, stress and burnout.”Wendy Cukier, Kelly Gallagher-Mackay and Karen Mundy, Globe & Mail op-ed, Jan 2022

Impacts on PSE

K-12 interventions likely won’t be fast or deep enough to completely insulate CdnPSEs from the repercussions of pandemic learning losses. Incoming learners from now through 2035 will doubtless require more extensive student supports…

Rising Tide of Need

Since long before the pandemic, institutions have been grappling with students who are not sufficiently prepared, academically or socially, for higher education. Among admitted PSE students, increasing cultural and linguistic diversity and rising incidence of cognitive disabilities have magnified the challenge. CdnPSEs have been launching writing centres, tutoring support services, and remedial courses to assist unprepared students in adjusting to the demands of PSE life. Even elite universities now offer writing workshops and tutors, literacy and numeracy remediation, subject-specific tutoring, and various forms of professional and peer advising. Some, like Georgia State U, have implemented sophisticated SIS systems and predictive analytics to target proactive interventions and supports, sometimes even before the first day of class. In the wake of the pandemic, demand for advising, counselling, tutoring, and a whole range of academic and personal supports will remain high for years to come.

Orientation & Onboarding

Research into student retention and persistence has emphasized the importance of pre-enrolment advising to ensure that students are prepared for their studies, and proper orientation and onboarding programs to provide essential knowledge and skills for PSE success. Many campuses have made o-week programming, cohort-based advising, or academic skills workshops mandatory parts of first year. In recent years, bridging programs targeting incoming Indigenous students have been spreading, like Capilano U’s 8-month “University One,” which includes indigenous content, field trips, and elders in residence. In summer 2020, several CdnPSEs anticipated pandemic learning losses, and introduced enhanced orientation, onboarding and bridging programs for all incoming students. McMaster U’s “Archway” includes wraparound academic, administrative, and personal wellness supports for incoming students, from the moment of acceptance through to their second year. The holistic approach to “guided, personalized first-year success” brings together academic advising, financial aid, international student services, co-op support, accessibility services, equity and inclusion services, medical and psychological care, residence life, and recreation. Each student is paired with an upper-year mentor and a staff coach, placed in a cohort of 30 students, and offered proactive guidance and a sense of community. McMaster Engineering developed its own summer onboarding program for incoming first-year students, “Ember” (Engineering Mentorship & Bridging Education Resources). Students were offered online tutorials and self-paced learning modules to reinforce foundational concepts in Math, Physics, and Chemistry, and opportunities to connect with their peers and upper-year Engineering students, as well as staff, faculty, and student clubs. Western U launched several interlocking supports for the “digital student experience,” to provide incoming first-year undergraduates with “Thriving Foundations.” The 3 pillars of the program include online summer programs for developing academic skills, language and academic orientation, a virtual online community to connect with new friends and clubs, and a peer mentoring program.

So far, that’s what I’ve noticed about K-12 learning losses during COVID19, and some of the implications for CdnPSE. If you’ve seen evidence to refute or reinforce any of the observations above, or have even better examples of CdnPSE interventions and supports, please do drop me a line!

Next time, I want to dive into the psychosocial repercussions of the pandemic on the next generation of students. Stay tuned!




Since I mentioned McMaster’s “Archway” program above, now is the time to share this video, which has been sitting in my ICYMI hopper for almost 2 years!

Archway Program

McMaster U released this 1-min animated vid back in the summer of 2020, to promote its Archway programfor all incoming first-year students, who “have a lot going on.” The goal is “to make sure every first-year student feels connected and supported,” by helping them navigate supports and services, meet other students and make friends, and build meaningful connections in the campus community. Upper-year mentors guide cohorts of incoming students with shared interests, and full-time professional coaches answer questions, big or small. (Archway also has its own website, Instagram, TikTok, and a parent newsletter – and apparently at one point had its own podcast, too.)  YouTube




As always, thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!


Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Please answer the question below to confirm that you are not a spambot * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

All contents copyright © 2014 Eduvation Inc. All rights reserved.