To read the full paper on which this commentary is based, click here.


 While much is still uncertain about the continuing impact of COVID-19, and adhering to official public health advice is essential, important educational decisions now and for the upcoming 2020-21 school year are a priority. I offer 10 areas of advice for policy-makers as they plan for the challenges ahead.

1) Keep up to date on international evidence concerning COVID-19 and education

In a recent report on education responses to COVID-19, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) warned that without effective information-sharing on education policy decisions, the pandemic is “likely to generate the greatest disruption in educational opportunity worldwide in a generation.” Canada isn’t the only country facing these challenges, and many common priorities for governments responding to the pandemic’s effects on students and teachers have already been identified. Canada can learn from education systems that are further ahead on the COVID-19 trajectory.

2) Review evidence from experiences within Canada

It is also imperative to share information within Canada. There are substantial concerns about equity of access to, and experience of, remote and online learning. In particular, difficulties with online learning have been reported for students who are living in poverty, in single-parent homes, have exceptionalities (special needs and gifted), and are English Language Learners. Worryingly, students’ overall readiness to learn, ability to focus on educational tasks and frequency of checking in online with teachers were reported to have declined during the pandemic. Student equity, engagement and learning must be addressed in future plans.

3) Learn from emerging experiences of re-opening schools

By early June, more than 70 countries had released school re-opening plans. These offer a number of implementation approaches for education systems to consider: phased re-openings prioritizing specific student groups or local contexts; reduced class sizes and reconfigured classrooms; repurposing larger rooms and using community facilities; increased use of outdoor learning; staggered scheduling and rotating enrolments. Within Canada, British Columbia and Quebec have started phased re-opening of schools, and Manitoba and Prince Edward Island allow physically distanced meetings between a student and teacher in schools.

4) Work collaboratively with the education profession, support staff, students and parents/guardians to inform decisions and co-develop plans

Educational decisions must include the professional expertise of educators and support staff at the table with policy-makers, along with students’ and parents’ or guardians’ perspectives, to inform appropriate and acceptable decisions. In Scotland, for example, a COVID-19 Education Recovery Group brings together all of the key government, professional and stakeholder groups to develop and agree to plans. There is also an International Council of Education Advisers for the Government of Scotland, of which I am a member, which is called on for international experiences and advice. This combination has been effective.

5) Provide opportunities to mitigate learning loss and support summer learning

A rapid evidence assessment from the United Kingdom concluded that the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their peers could widen by a median estimate of 36 per cent during the pandemic. However, this analysis is based on previous studies of summer breaks, whereas formal education has continued during COVID-19. Nevertheless, differences in student achievement linked to socio-economic status is a well-established research finding; for example, in Canada, a study of Grade 1-3 students’ literacy achievement comparing students from the most affluent and poorest households found a gap in achievement by the end of school year, which further increased over the summer break and was cumulative over time.  Related research found that summer programs can mitigate learning loss and reduce gaps in achievement in literacy and numeracy. Providing summer learning opportunities will be particularly important this year. This also includes opportunities for informal, active learning through recreational and outdoor activities to address evidence that students have become less physically active and go outside less since the pandemic started.

6) For school re-opening, address safety, hygiene and health in schools

Provinces and territories, including Alberta, B.C., New Brunswick and Quebec, have started announcing school re-opening plans, including phased re-opening, rotating enrolment, physical distancing and student “bubbles,” and remote and blended learning. Survey evidence from Toronto indicates that the majority of students are worried about missing school (61 per cent), but even more are worried about someone they care about becoming infected with COVID-19 (79 per cent). The physical health and hygiene requirements for re-opening school are complex and require attention to every aspect of schooling, from transport and arrival/departure routines to physical resources, activities and interactions in the classroom. Images from abroad show students sitting individually at single desks, physically distanced, sometimes with dividers, and sometimes wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). This is far from the normal routines of busy schools, where students may sit at shared tables, rotate between learning spaces and share resources. There are particular concerns with how to safely continue play-based early learning in these conditions.

Schools are going to need serious support to address students’ mental and emotional health, including specialist staffing and resources. While some students have enjoyed being home, others are bored and worried, the Toronto survey shows. Teachers also report feeling isolated and less emotionally connected to their students. Of serious concern, there is evidence of increased domestic abuse and increased online predatory behaviour toward children during the pandemic.

7) Prioritize quality teaching and learning and address inequities for students

It is crucial that attention is given to ensuring continued high-quality teaching and learning. Whether in a classroom or learning remotely, the most important factor for students’ learning is the quality of teaching. Effective teaching and learning strategies vary by subject and by students’ specific needs. Additional targeted supports and resources for disadvantaged, vulnerable and struggling students, and for those with accessibility and special educational needs, must be provided. Students also require support in learning how to engage and learn remotely, including digital literacy and independent study skills. While online learning should not be the only or dominant mode of teaching in the longer term, universal provision of adequate and affordable internet and devices is urgently needed.

Important larger questions concerning curriculum, assessment and instruction have not yet been fully addressed. In a context where students have spent a large portion of the school year learning remotely with limited contact with teachers, maintaining previous expectations of curriculum coverage, evaluations and high school graduation requirements may not be fair or appropriate. There are calls for a hiatus on traditional exams and large-scale testing, and concerns about the appropriateness of requiring a report card in the upcoming fall term. Assessment of learning must shift its focus to providing timely, formative feedback to students, educators and parents/guardians. A majority of teachers surveyed in Alberta say they are rethinking their future approaches to assessment (67 per cent) and to curriculum and instruction (77 per cent).

While schools will likely prioritize literacy, numeracy, credit recovery and required courses for high school graduation, it is important that a broad range of curricula continue to be supported, including arts and elective options. Particular attention should also be paid to how to deliver courses requiring hands-on, experiential learning, including sciences and courses linked to career choices and skilled trades. While classrooms may be returning to individual rows of desks, collaborative inquiries and interactive experiences remain vital to equip students with skills and competencies for future success.

8) Value and respect support staff and the education profession

Professional organizations are providing important advice to their members and to governments. Education systems that invest in the education profession are also the systems that tend to have higher educational performance. Educators and support staff cannot be expected to take on the magnitude of additional work associated with in-school, remote and blended learning. The education profession in Canada was already experiencing high workload and work intensification before the pandemic; additional staffing is now essential. The likelihood that some people will become ill must also be factored into staffing policies. Professional learning to navigate the complexities of the upcoming school year is required. Opportunities for professional collaboration to co-develop and share practices and resources will be important.

9) Engage with and support parents and guardians

Remote learning at home has been challenging for parents and guardians. In the Toronto and Alberta surveys, the majority of students (92 per cent) and teachers (77 per cent) have reported that students benefit from having someone at home to help them with their learning. However, existing inequities in households are being exacerbated, including which adults can be at home and provide educational supports and whether there is enough space and resources for learning. Remote learning is not a tenable long-term strategy. Guidance and frequent communication with parents and guardians will be necessary. Childcare availability and affordability must be addressed, as well as community resources and supports for older students who need safe places when they are not in school.

10) Invest in high-quality and safe K-12 education

Substantial additional investment is required, including:

  • resources to adhere to public health requirements (e.g. transportation, cleaning and hygiene supplies, PPE, additional furniture and learning resources);
  • additional staffing for regular deep cleaning, to provide teaching and learning in school and remotely, and to provide assistance to address students’ needs;
  • dedicated resources to address students’ and staff’s physical and mental health;
  • internet connectivity and remote-learning resources, including laptops and other devices;
  • targeted funding to provide additional supports for students and families most in need; and
  • professional learning to support new ways of working and students’ needs.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the future of schooling in the COVID-19 era. Flexibility and adaptability will be required throughout the school year. It is too early to know exactly what the 2020-21 school year will involve, but we do know we are not returning to the previous status quo.


Dr. Carol Campbell is Associate Professor of Leadership and Educational Change at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto.