By: Clare He

Source: Community College Research Centre

As we celebrate the return of normalcy in our post-pandemic lives, the last two years of Zoom meetings and face masks slowly fade into memories of a past time. For many students like myself, Zoom meetings in my pyjamas and cancelled examinations were just two of many highlights of the virtual and hybrid learning models. However, we forget that the 2020-2022 period also depicted some of the largest setbacks in academic achievements for students across the nation. 

At first, the prospect of at-home learning seemed extremely appealing when juxtaposed against the dreary image I had of high school. Who wasn’t willing to trade uncomfortable chairs with wobbly desks for the comfort of sprawling across your  bed with a laptop open? It seemed nothing could go wrong… until it did. As much as virtual learning satisfied my desire to relax and escape from schoolwork , I soon had a new set of worries on my hands. Open-book tests and mark-freezes had caused me to jeopardise my work ethic. I neglected my own learning and instead relied on the internet and textbooks to do all the work for me, but when I finally started thinking about my future in university, the fear of falling behind set in. 

Two years later, it turns out my fears were valid. Students aren’t just stumbling, they’re facing a gaping pit of missing knowledge that  they are struggling to fill. This learning loss mainly manifests in elementary and secondary schools; on average, students are five months behind in math and four months behind in reading. An NPR article notes that Thomas Kane, Faculty Director at Harvard University’s Centre for Education Policy Research, even expressed that those who spent a month or less online have lost seven to ten weeks of math instruction. However, the students who were affected most were often a part of historically disadvantaged groups. With limited funding, staff, and prolonged closures, low-income schools had up to seven months of unfinished learning compared to those in middle-class communities. Frankly, these shocking figures not only magnify the pre-existing disparities in our education system, but display far greater losses than we probably ever imagined. 

An analysis by McKinsey and Company indicates that as students enter the workforce, they may lose up to $61,000 in lifetime earnings. As a whole, that  amounts to $128 to $188 billion annually of potential economic losses. Though we lack the capacity to assess the full post-pandemic results, it is already apparent this learning loss triggers detrimental ramifications down the line. As evidenced, this pandemic’s academic toll will reverberate through our adult lives. 

You may be thinking, we university students are in the clear, right? Wrong. To be honest, I am still playing catch-up, myself. As a first-year student, missing out on educational opportunities in high school has affected my university experience. With chapters cut out and shortened, I feel as if fragments of my education have gone missing. Even with additional help from my family, I still don’t feel as prepared as if I had been in a classroom. Those who remained online even longer or lacked resources to catch up, would’ve still experienced greater setbacks. It is clear that the repercussions of the pandemic obstruct this generation’s possibility of obtaining success. 

What will it take to catch up? To be honest, time. Though lost time can never be recovered, I believe universities and colleges have the best chances of closing the gap. By now, schools should be aware of the challenges and changes they will face with incoming university students. After all, the pandemic has incited a great deal of transition; how does education return to normal under all we’ve encountered over the past two years?

Universities and colleges have a responsibility to be cognizant of the needs of their students and cater to those concerns. Some approaches include summer prep courses and “high dosage” tutoring to help students move through new concepts faster. While tutoring during summer vacation and extending the school year has had some notable pushback from parents and other community members, institutions like the University of Waterloo have already rolled out free tutoring programs to incoming post-secondary students interested in STEM. According to their website, they offer advanced functions, calculus, chemistry and physics courses to help ensure students are not disadvantaged due to COVID-19. The University of Toronto also has their Arrive Ready modules, a summer prep program which offers faculty lectures, skill-building activities, and study groups for incoming students in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In light of this, I believe it is high time that other universities follow in their example by creating their own programs or adapting the existing curriculum to account for some of the required knowledge first-year students may have missed out on. Existing programs should be expanded and improved on to accommodate students not only during their summer, but throughout their school year as well. It may require additional funding, staff, and coordination but those are tools an educational institution is more than equipped to provide. The goal is not only to provide effective solutions but to redefine education in an unpredictable, ever-changing world. 

Although these techniques could improve the well-being and academics of millions of students, they will likely take copious amounts of time and effort to instate. Without the considerable efforts of families, students, and educators, the problematic achievement gap will probably never close. Regardless, this post-pandemic complication creates a moment of reflection and progression for educational reform and research. 

A message to those who are still catching up; we aren’t moving backwards. We simply have more to achieve. So, chin up fellow catcher-uppers! A successful future is waiting for you.

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