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Gerry ChidiacThere are fewer students at my school this year. There are also fewer disciplinary issues, but it has become even more difficult to establish and maintain contact with our at-risk students and their families. I didn’t realize until recently, however, that this is a global issue.

There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted student learning. A recent UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) report states that in every part of the world, student achievement has been negatively impacted by school closures and reliance on remote learning.

A CBC feature pointed out that at least six percent of students in Canada have no access to online learning and that 200,000 young people have lost touch with their schools. Globally, the number is estimated to be 12 million but it’s difficult to determine if that’s accurate.

This issue is being examined by the Institute for 21st Century Questions. The institute states, “This is arguably the most underappreciated, time-urgent catastrophe of the entire pandemic period. If these children are not found and reintegrated into schooling with the greatest possible speed, they simply cannot succeed.”

UNESCO recognizes that many students have been able to continue learning throughout this crisis but learning inequalities have clearly been exacerbated. The students in Canada and around the world who were already disadvantaged have fallen further behind.

We now have several pressing questions:

  • Where have all of these students gone?
  • Why are they no longer attending school?
  • For those students who have stopped attending, how will we get them back?
  • For those who have fallen behind, how will we get them caught up?

In answering some of these questions, we can do little more than speculate. Given the difficult economic times, it’s likely that many families have moved and thus lost contact with their school communities. For others, there has been a legitimate fear of going to school due to the risk of illness. The lack of technology may have led to frustration for other students and frustration often leads to non-attendance.

What’s more important is figuring out how to reconnect with these students and their families once the crisis is over. This will take a community effort involving school administrators, teachers and support staff, as well as others who provide broader services to children and families.

Once we reconnect with students, we need to design programs that help them catch up.

We need to recognize that a crisis can also be an opportunity. Educators have long acknowledged that not every student fits into the kindergarten-to-Grade-12 model. Some students, especially those deemed to be at-risk, simply need more time to complete their studies and earn their high school diploma. If we’re willing to extend the timeline for school completion and offer programs that will be effective and attractive to these students, we could improve our graduation rates. If we do nothing, however, we risk failing an entire generation.

The bottom line is that we will need to invest more in education due to the COVID-19 crisis. Some may argue that given the state of the global economy, the necessary funds aren’t available. That, however, would be very short-sighted. If we don’t invest in these young people now, we will have a large segment of the population that’s under-educated and difficult to employ.

By showing a willingness to invest in and adapt our educational systems to the needs of our children and youth in the post-pandemic era, we will ensure a well-trained workforce of active, taxpaying citizens.

The path beyond the educational crisis brought about by the pandemic isn’t clear but now is the time to begin planning our way forward.

Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. For interview requests, click here.

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