Should kids lose summer to make up for lost school time? Experts weigh in

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Will school closures impact my child’s development?
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Most Canadian students have been out of school since March, and some experts are wondering if the learning “gap” this has created shows that it’s time to extend the Canadian school year into the summer months.

While teachers have “done their darndest” to make it work under difficult circumstances, the COVID-19 pandemic will inevitably leave a “gap” in education, said Lauren Bialystok, an associate professor of educational ethics at the University of Toronto.

Filling the gap will be important, she said, but tacking onto the school year — even running through the summer break — would create a “domino effect.”

But for some students, it could be beneficial.

“Summer already constitutes a major disadvantage to the already disadvantaged students in our school system,” Bialystok said.

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She explained poorer families often face increased challenges. While kids from middle-class and affluent backgrounds go to summer camps and take vacations, kids from poorer families may not have the same options.

The pandemic has already exacerbated that disparity, Bialystok said. There is a certain demographic of students who aren’t faring as well as others while learning at home, for some of the same socioeconomic reasons, she said.

Through this lens, there’s an “educational and ethical justification” for adding in-person class time either during the year or through the summer, she said.

Even then, it’s complicated.

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“Would all students have to be in school for the summer? Or just the ones whose parents need help with care or who feel they need remedial education?” she said. “If everybody’s in school for the summer, what are the opportunity costs of that? If it’s safe to be in school, it might be safe to be in camp or on a family holiday.”

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“None of this is to say kids stop learning in the summer.”

School plans differ across Canada

There are no firm plans throughout the provinces about when and how schools may resume.

In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney has said his government is looking at options for making up time students have lost, including possibly bringing schools back earlier than September, should public health advice allow. In British Columbia, school won’t return until September. Even then, the province’s chief health officer said it could be a “hybrid” model that mixes e-learning with in-person classes.

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Quebec is somewhat of an exception. The province allowed schools to restart in some regions less affected by the outbreak, however, it’s not mandatory kids return.

Ontario was the last to announce that classes wouldn’t resume before the summer break. The province has expanded its summer learning program to reach more students and families who want more resources but has made no mention of whether class time would be extended once it resumes, or whether the summer break would be affected. A detailed plan is expected in late June.

Pandemic ‘not a break’ for kids

So long as these summer courses and programs stay optional, there’s no harm to them, said Kristina Llewellyn, a social development studies professor at the University of Waterloo.

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“Everyone’s under extreme pressure, and that pressure might continue next year. So setting new mandatory learning expectations during the summer will be of no benefit and it actually might do harm when it comes to the mental health of families,” she said.

“There are all sorts of ways that young people learn, and certainly playing and exploring during the summer is part of that. It might seem like it, but parents and students haven’t had a break.”

“It all depends on what our goals are for young people.”

Charles Pascal, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and former deputy education minister in Ontario, believes the “continuous learning model” isn’t necessarily a bad one.

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He pointed to Australia. Students in Australia are essentially in school year-round. The year is broken into terms and between those terms there are breaks, sometimes one week, sometimes two.

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“Not having these long breaks eliminates that part of the population who say, ‘What the heck am I going to do with my kids this summer?'” he said. “But I don’t think with a break, the whole concept of ‘catching up’ would be lost.”

That “catching-up” is never going to be perfect, Bialystok added, there will ultimately “irrecuperable losses to the quality and continuity of education that nobody can be blamed for.”

But if provinces do decide that extra class time is necessary to make up time, she worries how the burden might be downloaded on teachers. It will come at a cost, one that would already be exacerbated by previous cuts to education funding in some provinces like Ontario.

“Contrary to the popular trope of teachers having it easy with summer break — they can’t do the level of intensive work they do if they don’t have a break. Plus, a lot of them are also parents. Who’s going to take care of their children?” she said.

“We need to remember that what we have now is not a break from the classroom. This isn’t a summer holiday, it hasn’t been since March. They can’t see their friends. All recreational and education centres set up for kids — like zoos and science centres — they’re closed. This period in quarantine can’t in any way be compared to a summer holiday that allows kids to recharge.”

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— with files from the Canadian Press

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