The lost year in education

Education disruption is the ‘shadow pandemic’ that could eclipse the health crisis in its impact. And with mounting learning gaps and lagging policy, Canadian students are falling behind their global peers.

Content image

(Photo illustration by Liz Sullivan and Drew Maynard)

In the spring of 2020, after the pandemic shuttered schools worldwide, 210,000 students in the Indian state of Telangana (sounds like TELL-in-Ghana) experienced a startling local version of a global problem. The students attend high-quality boarding schools, run by the state, for underprivileged children. Many come from remote villages around the state. All are from Dalit, scheduled-caste or severely impoverished communities. When India entered its first lockdown, these children, aged 10 and up, became part of the great national migration home. Their parents arrived, packed their things and took them home on buses or autorickshaws. The first in their families to be educated, the kids now faced a devastating disruption that could potentially end their schooling.

A police officer named Dr. R.S. Praveen Kumar in Hyderabad, Telangana’s capital city, was determined not to let this happen. A rather unusual police officer—he was trained as a veterinarian and has a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University—he heads both of Telangana’s Residential Educational Institutions societies, the government bodies that run the schools. Kumar and his colleagues scrambled to devise an alternate plan. Kumar’s novel solution was not just to help the children to continue to be students, but to turn many of them into teachers. His group set up village learning circles, where students, supported by their own teachers and local leaders, would instruct their peers and other children back home. “It’s based on the assumption that teaching is the best way of learning,” Kumar says by phone.

During the pandemic’s first wave, there were 27,000 student teachers, each leading a village learning circle, teaching 120,000 of their schoolmates and thousands of other kids. Children who almost lost their chance at an education instead brought more children into schooling. In a conversation under lockdown in Hyderabad, Shantha Sinha, an academic, activist and former chair of the Indian government’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, noted the project has been such a success it is “sparking a silent revolution for first-generation learners” in India.

Dr. RS Praveen Kumar. (Photograph by Sanjay Borra)

It’s a rare bright spot in what was a lost year for kids around the globe. As the global pandemic shuttered schools in more than 190 countries, children disappeared from classrooms in Ghana and Uganda, the Philippines and Indonesia. They vanished into jobs in factories and sand mines and cocoa plantations. In Bangladesh, they went to work in dumps as garbage pickers. In Mexico and Bolivia, they began toiling in amber mines and brick-making kilns. In India, they worked construction and picked cotton. Millions of dots of light around the world went dark as children who would have learned language, history and science and progressed to more schooling or better jobs began a life of low-wage toil. The costs, for those millions of lives and the other millions they touch, are almost incalculable.

From its early days, the pandemic has been a terrible study in inequality, so it seems inescapable that the world’s poorer countries would bear the heaviest costs. But kids also disappeared from classrooms in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.

The reality has, of course, been far less grim in this country. COVID-19 numbers were never as bad here as they have been in some places. We have universal schooling, and a baseline pre-pandemic that puts us in the top 10 in reading, math and science on international PISA assessments (the OECD’s international student assessment), even if our scores have declined in recent years. As schools pivoted to remote learning at the start of the pandemic, laptops and tablets were distributed to students who needed them. School boards polled parents on internet access and schedules for in-person school last fall: every other day? Every other week?

And yet in Canada, too, this has been a lost year for kids. Parts of Canada had school closures of more than 31 weeks and counting, which according to UNESCO data puts us in line with Italy, Romania, Ethiopia, Cambodia and Afghanistan. Reading scores have dropped among young children. Community organizations in Quebec worry about dropout rates. Faced with a diminished version of school, children retreated from classrooms here, too: the ones struggling in remote school with no help at home; those without reliable internet access or the right technology; kids who are bored and disconnected; kids with special needs; countless numbers of kids from more comfortable backgrounds who are there but not there, languishing in virtual classrooms with their cameras and mics off, napping or playing Roblox or watching Animal Crossing videos on YouTube as the teacher blah-blah-blahs greyly like an adult in a Peanuts cartoon.

READ: The COVID-19 pandemic is remapping childhood—and the effects may linger

The world faces a “shadow pandemic,” as UNESCO dubbed the education disruption, that threatens to eclipse the health crisis itself in its long-term impact. And there is growing frustration in some circles that Canada is lagging in its response. “We are an OECD country; we are a G7 country; we are a rich country,” says Prachi Srivastava, a Canadian academic who has helped lead a global conversation on education during COVID. “If you just look at our starting point, most of us could say that two years of education being affected by education disruption, and potentially a third, is not acceptable for a country that has such immense privileges. It is unacceptable. Unacceptable.”

As a disjointed, disconnected school year winds down, parents, teachers and policy-makers face an uncertain new phase. More than 1.5 billion children were affected by closures. Tens of millions, including 5.5 million Canadian kids, will return to school soon enough. They will be two grades past where they were when the pandemic began. Many have been set back in social and emotional learning and mental health. Some have experienced grief, financial strain, isolation. The kids who were already underserved may be set back most severely, but all have been affected.

How to ensure children don’t get left behind is a puzzle with enormous stakes. Students currently in school, a World Bank report estimates, could lose $10 trillion in earnings over their lifetimes—or one-tenth of global GDP—as a result of school closures. As the education question gathers momentum in Canada, some of the world’s richer countries have already deployed billions of dollars and targeted programs. And in pockets of the poorest, too—parts of the world more accustomed to adapting to emergencies, disasters, strife—some leaders have marshalled ingenuity and resourcefulness, finding success against extraordinary odds. There may be lessons for Canada in both.

Dr. Prachi Srivastava. (Photograph by Wade Hudson)

Early rumblings of the education catastrophe began more than a year ago. Srivastava, an associate professor of global education at Western University in Ontario, had been following the epidemiological news from Wuhan since December. By February, she was talking with international colleagues about the possible impact on schools. Srivastava’s background is in emergency education. Her first job was working with Kosovar refugees to Albania during the Balkan conflict in the 1990s. She went on to run Kosovo’s first program for the reintegration into school of Roma and Ashkali children who had been out of the system for more than 10 years. “I think I will never do anything as important as that,” she says in a conversation. Long after her specialization changed, Srivastava maintained an interest in emergency education, which she thinks has a particular resonance in this time.

By March 2020, she was concerned that discussions of the coronavirus pandemic in Canada seemed to be centred on staying home for two weeks. “It was very short-sighted,” she recalls thinking. “And I could also see that there was very little planning or preparation around schooling, at least in Ontario,” her home, and the province hit hardest by school closures.

Early in the pandemic, researchers used modelling to predict potential learning gaps caused by closures. The actual damage has been worse. A study out of the Netherlands—a best-case scenario, with top-tier broadband access, equitable school funding and closures of only eight weeks—suggested that students in remote school, in the authors’ blunt words, “made little to no progress” while learning from home. Longer closures, they posited, might lead to bigger learning gaps. Of course, the impact of first-wave closures was bound to be dramatic; schools and administrators were scrambling. But later studies are not much more encouraging. And hit hardest by the shifts to virtual and hybrid learning are kids from lower-income households and marginalized communities.

READ: The pandemic has proven that kids are not as resilient as we think

Averages don’t capture the steepest declines, a point made colourfully by the head of the New Hampshire-based Center for Assessment. “We have a saying in New England,” Scott Marion told Education Week. “You can have one foot on a wood stove, and another on a block of ice, and on average you’re pretty comfortable.” The Dutch study found that losses were concentrated among students whose parents were less educated. Tests can also only evaluate the kids who take them. One hopeful study from NWEA, a U.S. testing non-profit, found that reading scores of 4.4 million American kids were not far from their peers’ scores pre-pandemic, and math scores dropped moderately rather than precipitously (five to 10 percentile points). But a quarter of students were missing from the results. They didn’t take the test at all, and they were largely underperforming kids, often from poorer communities.

In Canada, how and whether kids learned depended in part on where they were. The school experience varied widely province to province. Nova Scotia’s schools largely stayed open after September 2020, closing only as necessitated by outbreaks, making this a mostly normal year. So did British Columbia’s (without masking requirements until late March), Alberta’s (but for closures in December and again in April and May) and Quebec’s, where in-person attendance was mandatory with few exceptions, though high-schoolers spent months in a hybrid system of in-person and online school. As of late May, as case counts surged, schools in Manitoba were still open, to the alarm of some parents. Ontario’s closures were the most draconian: 14 weeks in the first wave, five weeks in the second (longer for hot zones), and indefinite shutdowns starting in April 2021. Many students in the province, including 80,000 in the Toronto District School Board and almost 55,000 in the Peel District School Board, both COVID hot spots, opted for virtual learning. Homeschooling numbers rose in parts of Canada, too.

There is wide consensus on the importance of keeping schools open, and doing so sustainably. The 1,500 British pediatricians who wrote an open letter last June asking their government to make this a priority articulated the concerns of health and education experts everywhere. Achieving this takes planning, and Prachi Srivastava argued early in the pandemic for a Canadian COVID task force coordinated at the federal level to cover education as well as health, finance and emergency preparedness. Srivastava works with UNESCO regularly; led a 2020 symposium on COVID and schools ahead of a G20 Summit; and drafted policy briefs meant to inform G20 leaders on education planning and recovery. She envisaged a task force that could work with all levels of government, including Indigenous institutions in appropriate ways. Practitioners, researchers and scientists, she suggested, could be included as advisers. It didn’t happen.

Instead, in a matter of months, Canada went from a mandatory, universal school system to a patchwork of many models, noted Irvin Studin, president of the Institute for 21st Century Questions, a Toronto-based think tank. This was not a universal norm. In Taiwan and Japan, in Australia and New Zealand, schools retained their usual structure, closing as outbreaks demanded. Vietnam, which shares a border with China and is not a self-contained island country, contained the pandemic early and kept schools open for all but around 14 weeks. Studin says he has heard from contacts in Austria and Germany that compulsory schooling norms prevailed there, even online. “Ours,” he says, “collapsed almost immediately.”

(Photo illustration by Liz Sullivan and Drew Maynard)
(Photo illustration by Liz Sullivan and Drew Maynard)

There have been pockets of responsive decision-making. Prince Edward Island revised curricula for the 2020-21 year, in consultation with teachers, to make up for the lost months of school in spring. Last fall, Quebec promised $20 million for catch-up resources including tutoring; the province also streamlined the process for getting help for kids with special needs, lightening the administrative burden on psychologists, remedial teachers and others. And in B.C., schools opened last May to children of essential workers and students with exceptional special needs before they opened to everyone else. Perhaps as a legacy of that decision, reports Mariana Martinez Vieyra, clinical supervisor and refugee mental-health coordinator at the Vancouver Association for Survivors of Torture, parents in the communities she serves have expressed very little nervousness about school. Every child in her personal and professional circles (except one, who has a health condition) is attending in-person school. Many parents expressed great relief that schools were open, even without masking guidelines until March. “Masks were not mandatory, but they were not prohibited,” she says. “Many families just had their children wear them.”

On the frontlines, teachers across the country did extraordinary things, packaging boxes of books for students, preparing sticky animated lessons during periods of virtual schooling. Schools in the Calgary Board of Education kept their doors open throughout the first wave, chief superintendent Christopher Usih says, so families without tech access or those who preferred paper could pick up learning packages. Struggling early readers in Alberta’s Fort Vermilion received tutoring four times a week last fall; by January, 80 per cent were reading at grade level, CTV reported. In the non-profit world, Frontier College pivoted quickly to tutoring online or by phone and, in conjunction with the Canadian Children’s Literacy Foundation and other groups, handed out more than 140,000 books via food banks to children in need.

But political leaders did not adapt quickly everywhere. The federal government pledged $2 billion in funding for safe school reopening and $112 million for on-reserve First Nations schools last August. But the interventions came late for fall reopenings, and some experts believe the funding for provinces lacked adequate accountability measures. Education is a provincial responsibility, and provinces—including Ontario, which had been in a protracted standoff with schools over teacher contracts, class sizes and COVID learning plans—were free to spend the funds at their discretion. There have not been concerted policy efforts to prevent or address learning gaps. “Canada has, for over a hundred years, operated on autopilot, where leadership has been transactional or accidental,” Studin says, “where mistakes of policy haven’t had terrible consequences. And now they have catastrophic consequences.” In the thick of an education crisis, a national charity that could have performed an important service was mired in scandal, wrote Karen Mundy, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Education Canada. Thousands of idealistic youth volunteer tutors with WE Charity sat idle even as kids struggled.

Meanwhile, in some jurisdictions, back to school has been the focus of intense policy interventions for months now. A full year ago, the Netherlands pledged US$278 million to help students in need with learning recovery. Starting last November, the U.K. pledged $5.1 billion in pandemic-related funding for the school years beginning in 2020 and 2021, including $2.9 billion to help students catch up. There is money dedicated to tutoring and other services for “disadvantaged pupils.” In February, the Biden administration announced US$129 billion in education stimulus, targeting high-poverty schools in particular; a fifth of funds are earmarked for correcting learning loss. That’s on top of US$100 billion for facility repairs and construction.

The effects of Canada’s inaction will be hardest on the least privileged. The schools problem posed by COVID is an enormous equity challenge. Canada fares comparatively well on equity in PISA rankings, and the language of equity is baked into our institutional conversations. Yet we have not done well on delivering equity in a critical time. In fact, the inequities already in the system are deepening. It’s not just the much-gossiped-about learning pods. Some private schools reported spikes in interest or enrolment last year, and a number of tutoring companies are reporting an uptick in business. Clients are more attuned to bumps in their kids’ learning, says Mehrnaz Bassiri, the founder of the Vancouver tutoring company MyGradeBooster. Spring break and the summer tended to be quieter periods; during the pandemic, she says, there was no slowdown.

The emergence of a shadow education system is occurring alongside some profoundly inadequate efforts to correct inequities. Ontario recently announced $20 million in funding for learning recovery, part of a $2-billion packet of pandemic-related funding it has pledged for the next school year—to the great relief of educators. But Srivastava points to the $980 million it is also spending on a $400 child benefit for every family ($500 for children with special needs). “The government is taking money out of an earmarked budget for education,” she says, “and directly diverting it to households without even the condition that it must be spent on education. It is really funnelling out almost a billion dollars from the education budget.” An effective program would target communities with the most need, Srivastava says. “That’s not what we’ve done.”

Dr. Kelly Gallagher-MacKay. (Photograph by Wade Hudson)
Dr. Kelly Gallagher-MacKay. (Photograph by Wade Hudson)

Last October, Canada’s largest school board reported a surprising bit of news: 5,500 kids it had expected would turn up in its schools didn’t materialize. They weren’t enrolled for online school with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and they didn’t show up in person. About 800 were high school-age, and 4,700 were elementary-bound. Likewise, 2,400 kids didn’t show up in Ottawa schools last fall; at least 3,400 students in Calgary, and 4,800 across Manitoba, didn’t enrol.

The numbers were gaps between projections and enrolments, not students who didn’t return to school. In the TDSB, a majority were kindergarten deferrals or newcomers who didn’t arrive, the board’s interim director, Karen Falconer, explains. Some, she adds, are demographic projections, rather than actual kids. The process of tracing back the numbers is challenging: “Basically, it’s tracking every single individual child renewal,” says Falconer. “It’s not as fruitful when there isn’t a connection to the family because the child never arrived in school.” Those 5,500 missing, then, were a hodgepodge of statistics and real children, newcomers and non-newcomers, kindergarten deferrals and not. The board doesn’t know how many there are of each.

A majority of the 3,400 students missing from the Calgary board’s rolls, too, are deferred kindergarten enrolments, chief superintendent Usih says. As for the exact demographics, he says the board is very interested in ascertaining who these kids are, and investigating, but won’t know their exact make-up until the fall—almost a full year later.

Kindergarten isn’t mandatory, and deferrals are not surprising given concerns about class sizes and how unsatisfying virtual school is for very young children. But if there are thousands of kids, even kindergarten-age ones, who aren’t in school, they surely remain a puzzle for someone to solve. Even before the pandemic, according to the Canadian Children’s Literacy Foundation, more than 25 per cent of kids started Grade 1 without the skills to learn to read—which puts them at risk for falling behind later.

Drops in kindergarten enrolment are in fact a troubling pandemic trend, according to a recent paper co-authored by Daphna Bassok, an associate professor at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. Enriching experiences in early grades, the research shows, have an impact on high school graduation rates, even adult wages. A lack of these penalizes disproportionately children from low-income families. Whether those missing kids turn up in classrooms in Toronto and Calgary and Ottawa in September, ready to learn, depends on how stimulating the home environment is—a big unknown.

These shadow students may or may not, when the dust settles, represent a coming early-years crunch in Canadian schools. They certainly do seem to signal a weakness in our systems for collecting, sharing and responding to data.

However impoverished it was in every other way, the 2020-21 year ought to have been a year rich in data. Canadian schools tried a variety of approaches: mandatory in-person instruction (Quebec); hybrid instruction; fully virtual instruction; in-person instruction every other day (New Brunswick’s high schools).

Which approaches produced better outcomes? How and where did kids learn best? How did the first-wave closures affect learning, and what happened when classes went online again? It’s nearly impossible to say. There is a pronounced lack of data on student performance, Laurier’s Gallagher-Mackay explains.

While B.C. and Nova Scotia are continuing with most of their planned assessments, Ontario has not run its for two years now. Alberta ran one this year, but some boards, including the Calgary board, did not participate. Instead, we have smaller-scale studies: a much-cited effort by George Georgiou at the University of Alberta and a preliminary TDSB report, both showing drops among early readers. And we have classroom indicators: falling report-card marks in Winnipeg and across Quebec, according to reporting by Caroline Alphonso in the Globe and Mail; and higher failure rates in Ontario’s Hamilton-Wentworth region. Grading anomalies abound, and there are upswings in both failure rates and high marks. Falconer says the TDSB prioritized student mental health over wider testing, which can be stressful—and hard to interpret in a disrupted year. But preliminary TDSB data show Grade 1 reading scores declined—even as marks went up. The board is studying these patterns but won’t know until summer what they mean.

(Photo illustration by Liz Sullivan and Drew Maynard)
(Photo illustration by Liz Sullivan and Drew Maynard)

Another blind spot is attendance, a vital predictor of performance. Each week of absence per semester in Grade 9 correlates to a 20 per cent lower chance a student will graduate. Schools have attendance records, but comparable, aggregated provincial data doesn’t exist, says Gallagher-Mackay. As of mid-May, the TDSB didn’t have data on attendance in 2020-21. The Calgary Board of Education is aware of increased absenteeism—10 per cent or so versus the usual one or two per cent in elementary school. As for high schools, there is no evidence of a significant drop in graduation rates, Usih says; the board is relying on the usual credit-recovery process for students who’ve fallen behind. It will employ a parent survey as well as its own analysis sometime before September to ascertain returning students’ needs. Usih says they are bracing for an unusual back to school, and will need to be flexible and responsive—but for now it’s an abstraction.

The patchwork of information delays good decision-making. “We didn’t get Canadian data—basic Canadian data—on how much kids are learning,” Gallagher-Mackay says. “You didn’t need to do a census. UNESCO has been recommending representative samples and we know how to do that, and we didn’t do it.” She believes the lack of data is a pattern in Canadian schools, stemming in part from a resistance from educators. “Because of various politics of education, where a lot of measurement was used to scold teachers and rank schools,” she says, “there’s a deep suspicion in the profession around measurement.”

That cultural resistance is matched by a lack of interest outside schools. Take online education. Many experts—children included—believe fully online learning isn’t anywhere near as effective or engaging. Lower-income students fare worse in virtual learning, which Srivastava notes also raises serious developmental concerns for younger students. Ontario, which has upwards of 200,000 kids in online schools, offers no data from the pandemic year either refuting this or demonstrating it. Rather, it will offer virtual learning again in 2021-22. “I’m a researcher,” says Gallagher-Mackay, “So I have a certain kind of causal framework in my mind. I tend to think, no data, no problem, no solution.” Teachers’ unions, who might reasonably apply some pressure, haven’t pushed the point about virtual learning, she adds, given that in-school safety protocols weren’t as robust as they should have been. “It’s a little bit complicated to have this conversation [about e-learning and] getting everybody into a panic, when you actually don’t think what you’re being asked to do is safe.”

Caught in this tangle of competing interests are the kids. For them, school closures spelled the end of sports, extracurricular clubs, classmates, recess. The 80,000 who attended the TDSB’s virtual schools last year were not connected to their local school at all. “And in our in-person schools, in some cases half the school isn’t there—just the feeling of emptiness is also echoing through their rooms and hallways,” Falconer says. “Nothing’s the same.” Teachers I spoke with described the realities memorialized in social media memes: kids who’ve fallen asleep; kids cheating on math assignments; kids who just don’t come. I heard one heart-stopping story from an Ontario teacher about a teen who arrived in high school during the pandemic. He was issued a device that didn’t work; teachers scrambled to find him another. He’d already been failed by the system for years—a Black student from a low-income community, he was in Grade 9 but reading at a Grade 2 level. A rescue mission would be challenging in the best of circumstances. Teachers were nonetheless determined to help; one started an after-hours reading-intervention program. Then his mother got COVID. Then she was hospitalized. The child left school not long after, and his teacher, despite her best efforts, couldn’t find him.

It will take uncommon planning, focus, resourcefulness and resources to bring kids like him back in September—and to equip teachers to teach them effectively. Children will return to classrooms with enormous variability in their abilities. “The truth is, we don’t have our schools themselves set up like learning organizations,” says Gallagher-Mackay. “You’ve got the one-year delay on everything. So when you have the kind of upheaval that we’ve had, where we need highly responsive data to be taking the pulse of issues, we don’t have a system set up to do that.” For teachers, the challenge of assessing wildly varying needs will come on the heels of a challenging year. Many reported to classrooms without robust safety measures. Some have taught students in person and on screens simultaneously, or adapted to 10-week quadmesters with no preparation time. Many have had to learn entirely new ways of teaching—in front of an audience, while managing their own kids. Lack of planning will affect everyone in the classroom.

Timing matters. “Here’s the thing about education,” says Prachi Srivastava. “It’s a cumulative process, and the outcomes are cumulative. So if you’ve had a disruption for any length of time beyond a couple of weeks, this is now going to accumulate. And it’s going to accumulate in a way that, unless we make major changes to that process, is going to leave out the vast majority of children.”

Administrators understand the gravity of the situation; they just don’t convey a sense of urgency. “You cannot assess the situation until we get them all back into school and have a sense of where they lie. That’s the truth,” says Falconer, a seasoned educator with 40 years of experience, who stepped into a daunting job in December. (She’s the third director of the TDSB during the pandemic.) “It won’t take long. Within six months we will know where we’ve gained and where we have to really focus our energies on student achievement gaps.” That would be close to two years from the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. “As educators, we’re not fast-moving. We’re not,” Falconer admits. This is understandable in a sense; one wouldn’t expect, or want, organizations overseeing hundreds of schools, with billion-dollar budgets, to change course on a whim. On the other hand, an emergency demands some nimbleness—an impulse that has guided innovative responses in some places with far fewer resources. Administrators and policy-makers in Canada have been stretched thin—but surely no more so than those in a country like India, whose poor doubled in number during the pandemic.

There is a term taking hold among a grassroots network of educators and child-welfare advocates scattered around the globe, in the U.S. and Austria, Spain and Pakistan, Senegal, Sri Lanka: “third-bucket kids.” It describes children who are not in the first bucket, the traditional bricks-and-mortar school favoured by almost everyone. Nor are they in the second, less desirable bucket of online learning. Kids in the third bucket are children who have drifted out of any type of school.

The evocative phrase is a neologism created by Studin, who is also the former program director at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto (before it merged with the Munk School of Global Affairs) and, prior to that, a Privy Council Office wonk. Studin stumbled on the phenomenon of third-bucket kids last fall. He was hearing of children in his social networks, kids from generally comfortable families, whose parents had decided to simply take a break of a year or two from school during the pandemic. He also recalls talking to local entrepreneurs about their struggles. One, who operates an indoor playground at a mall in Thornhill, Ont., told him business was actually pretty good. Parents were still bringing their kids, but midweek, in the middle of the day. In November, after a presenter at a symposium hosted by his institute spoke on the education question, Studin got moving.

He began connecting via his networks around the globe. He found that a number of jurisdictions were already tuned into the problem of children drifting out of school, and had been taking action.

Many of the educators he’s spoken with have since adopted the term “third bucket.” A number have joined the Worldwide Commission to Educate All Kids (Post-Pandemic), his think-tank offshoot focused on the schooling catastrophe. Studin has also rallied a lively mix of Canadian teachers, academics and politicians; the commission’s website lists among its members former federal NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin, and Lloyd Axworthy, the former foreign affairs minister and University of Winnipeg president. (Studin’s stints at the Privy Council were under prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper; his networks are on both sides of the political aisle. He did take an aborted run at the Conservative leadership last year; not because of any partisan leanings, he says, but out of a desire to make change.)

The commission has hosted a number of global and regional summits, where educators and community leaders share resources and learn from one another’s experiences. Studin believes there is a serious third-bucket problem in Canada, too, though he doesn’t have data demonstrating this. (He cites projections based on household internet access, but the impact of poor connectivity varies greatly; where schools have mostly stayed open for in-person learning, it wouldn’t lead to students dropping out of the system.)

But Canadian schools do face serious learning gaps and student disengagement, and officials could learn from the ideas shared at his symposia. These range from targeted coaching and summer classes to an adapted school calendar. One principal in Kingston, the Jamaican capital, described what he calls a “search and rescue” mission, with guidance counsellors going door to door in hopes of bringing back kids who are struggling or have left school outright. Officials from Arkansas presented a detailed learning-recovery plan: a six-month project of hiring educators to find and re-engage students; intensive small-group tutoring in math; rolling graduations to accommodate students who are still finishing credits. Shantha Sinha, the Indian child-rights activist, outlined grassroots projects in Bihar state that have carved out child-labour-free zones; in some areas, every child is tracked to ensure no one slips through the cracks.

In Telangana state, where the consequences of not acting quickly would have been devastating, Praveen Kumar and his colleagues got to work as soon as the shutdown began 15 months ago. “It was all done in unimaginable speed, locking down the country. And the knee-jerk reaction we had was to use social media,” Kumar says. They started pushing worksheets via WhatsApp on parents’ phones. But not everyone had reliable connectivity, and they soon realized they would lose kids. Kumar then hit upon the idea of turning older students into teachers. The village schools were shut, too—another education catastrophe. Teaching those kids, he thought, would engage his students while helping the wider community.

And so, in fields and under sprawling village trees, in temples and churches closed for worship, and sometimes in their own backyards, teenagers with neatly pulled-back hair and wearing colourful dresses or salwar kameez gathered with their small groups—no more than 15 kids—began to teach reading and math, conduct simple experiments on air pressure, and discuss concepts such as globalization. The language of instruction is English. The newly minted teachers got help from their own teachers; they would text recorded video lessons to the school first, for feedback, then share them with their students. Videos are archived online as shared resources, and the top student lectures are paid as part of an “Earn While You Learn” incentive program.

To be precise, the student teachers aren’t teachers. Kumar has bestowed a different title on them: commander. There are 27,000 commanders across Telangana state. “I am basically a cop,” he laughs. But there’s a thought behind the terminology. “Young children, they get a kick [out of it], you know. Poor people are deprived of that power. They are disempowered people, so probably any label that gives them a sense of power—not to abuse it, but, yes, a sense of agency.”

P. Deeksha Singh, 6th class, of Telangana Tribal Welfare Residential Fine Arts School, Jangammet, Hyderabad, Telangana . Deeksha Singh conducted a class for students of Village Learning Circle (VLC), Kharmanghat, Hyderabad, in the month of August, 2020, following the complete closure of schools due to surge in Covid 19 cases in Telangana. She conducted a class on superstitions and astrology. (Courtesy of K. Satyanarayana/Telangana Social Welfare Residential Educational Institutions Society (TSWREIS))

Kumar’s stake in the Dalit cause is deeply personal. He is himself a product of one of those boarding schools. “My mother was a bonded labourer, who was rescued by teachers,” he explains. “She retired as a headmistress. I thought, my mother’s story should resonate in every household in this country. That’s one of the reasons I came back to this system.” For nine years he has been seconded to the schools file—something permitted by the force. “We believe every police officer is a citizen in uniform,” he says, “and every citizen is a police officer without a uniform.”

Kumar says his group hasn’t launched empirical studies, but when schools reopened for a brief period after the first wave, the student commanders were more confident, more communicative. And the circles attracted children who might never otherwise have seen school gates. When the village learning circles closed to learning in person amid a devastating second wave in India, many of the classes and conversations, he says, moved online.

“If you were putting in a grant proposal, you couldn’t have thought about these things,” Shantha Sinha says. “It defies the frameworks of NGOs; they don’t work for a situation as dynamic as this.” Sinha’s speech is refreshingly unbureaucratic and jargon-free. She didn’t correct my language the way some Canadian officials I spoke with did: “underserved, not disadvantaged”; “I don’t like discussing it only as a learning loss conversation”; or—on the subject of kids in online school who aren’t equipped with reliable broadband or adequate devices—“ ‘not equipped’ is a funny word, right? We want to be careful.”

In parts of Africa or Asia that lack the broad public school systems we have in Canada, there is a robust children’s-rights infrastructure that sprang into action, and an agility that’s vital when you’re advocating for millions of kids who live close to the edge—though some of these sparks of innovation have been imperilled during the second wave.

Why was, and is, Canada so unprepared? It could be described quite earnestly as a first-world problem. “The issue we have in countries like Canada,” says Prachi Srivastava, “is that we have had a long history of relative stability, and that’s a very fortunate position to be in. But the downside is that we are not prepared for crisis.” Srivastava points to a lack of crisis planning, of backup and contingency plans, and to a habit of siloing systems. In many countries, particularly low- and middle-income ones, it’s not unusual for an education ministry to collaborate with ministries of health, child welfare or labour. An interdisciplinary approach creates more effective policy solutions. Canada doesn’t tend to do this. “There is a parochialism that pervades our outlook,” she adds. “We have not felt the need to learn from other countries.”

Canada’s problem is not a scarcity of financial resources—not compared with Jamaica or India. And it’s not a scarcity of human resources, says Srivastava, who points out we have a remarkably large bureaucracy per capita. Deployed effectively, these can still help Canada weather the education challenge of the coming months.

The pandemic school year wasn’t without its unexpected silver linings. Children learned resilience, and in many cases, autonomy. The suspension of extracurricular activities, while they were missed by kids, meant more free play, and some respite from overscheduling. The switch to remote learning led to later school start times, and more sleep for teens, which correlates with better academic performance and health. And children spent a lot more time with their families. For many—though decidedly not all—the time was beneficial, strengthening bonds. There is evidence of a spike in family-language acquisition: as kids from immigrant backgrounds spent more time with families, their interest, and sometimes fluency, in heritage languages grew. A University of British Columbia study of a Vancouver-area Bengali-language school found that its clientele grew last year.

As with everything to do with this exceptional time, we have to reflect on the changes we want to make, and the things we want to keep. For schools, the question, ultimately, is how to respond on a human scale to adversity; how to keep the focus on children as people, not units requiring resource allocation or variables in a strategic plan. The first step in meeting their needs—particularly the needs of the most vulnerable among them—is learning what those needs are, for each child.

For governments and citizens, too, this is an exceptional moment. “Every system we have in our societies,” Prachi Srivastava says, “no matter where you are, is defined by values. We can talk about resources, or resource allocation. But these things are not written on some Holy Grail and somehow delivered to us through a metric or spiritual guidance. These are choices.” This is a moment for good choices, if there ever was one. “It sounds very Whitney Houston, but this is our future. It’s one-fifth of our world’s humanity. So how are we going to go forward?”

This article appears in print in the July 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The lost year.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.