A school crossing sign in Łútsël K'é in February 2021. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
While there is lots of excitement from students to finally return to fully in-person learning this year, the GNWT and NWT education councils are working to also understand the mental health struggles arising for students following two years of disrupted learning due to Covid-19.
In a news release issued earlier this week, the GNWT outlined the potential impacts that Covid-19 has had on junior kindergarten to Grade 12 students.
“The pandemic was a significant disrupter to the education system as a whole,” wrote the education department, noting Grade 7 to 12 students were significantly impacted in the 2020-21 school year as they faced “more stringent isolation and health and safety requirements.”
“The shift to remote learning, the limitations to connect with one’s community, and engage in after-school programming has had a negative impact on the well-being and academic experiences for many students,” the department said.
The report identified that over the course of the pandemic enrolment dropped in kindergarten in the small communities and regional centres. Compared to pre-pandemic, there has been a slight decline in students’ scoring on social competency and language and cognitive development on a survey that looks at how prepared kindergarten students are to meet developmental milestones. However, the NWT’s youngest students are still doing well in the physical health, emotional maturity, and communications skills and general knowledge categories.
Middle schoolers are assessed using a middle years development survey, which students fill out themselves each year. Grade 4 students reported minimal changes to their overall well-being, though there was an eight percent decrease in the number of Grade 7 students who self-reported as “thriving.”
Grade 7 students marked declines in relationships with adults at school, friendships, after-school activities, and maintaining healthy eating and sleeping habits compared to pre-pandemic data.
Since Alberta Achievement Tests and diploma exams were cancelled or not used consistently during the pandemic, its harder to gauge the effect of Covid-19 on high school students academics.
“In the coming years, ECE anticipates that grades, test results, and graduation rates will be lower than in pre-pandemic years,” the report read.
Across communities (which are broken down by Yellowknife, regional centres, and small communities) and Grades 10 to 12, successful course completion is currently trending higher than pre-pandemic.
However, the education department cautions comparing these rates to previous years due to the significant disruptions to education, such as diploma exams being optional and not the required 30-percent of a student’s grade during the pandemic.
The department also suspects fewer high school students took core courses – like Math, English, Social Studies, Science and Northern Studies – during the pandemic, which contributed to the higher passing rate.
“They’re so excited to be back in-person”
Dean MacInnis, principal at Sir John Franklin High School, says that students are excited to be back in-person, though the school recognizes that the return does come with some struggles.
“It certainly has been an adjustment for the kids,” MacInnis told Cabin Radio.
“The first month we saw a lot of students saying they were tired, because they had different routines with remote learning, and being at school all day is a lot different from those routines.”
According to MacInnis, after experiencing the flexibility that remote learning offered, many students had difficulty getting into a structured classroom routine and having to focus on one subject for a set period of time.
One of the high school’s assistant principals, Angela Martin, agreed with MacInnis, saying that many students are experiencing energy loss due to overcommitting themselves.
“They’re so excited to be back in-person, and be around their friends, that they’re signing up for everything, they want to do everything,” she said.
“But because we haven’t had much going on the last two years, they don’t really know how to necessarily time manage in the same way.”
Martin says she is also interested in seeing how students will manage a full semester and full year of in-person classes.
“Two years ago they were only here for half-days, and then last year we were online and in-person, so the stamina of being able to make it through a full year in-person will be a lot different,” she told Cabin Radio.
Solaya Meserah, a Grade 11 student, described being back in school as “stressful” while also acknowledging the excitement around seeing her friends without masks.
“Being back in person means I have to think about different things than when I was at home,” said Meserah.
“The hardest part for me, is that I need a sensitive routine and this year we changed from four periods to five periods, and it was weird for me at first to go from being at home and doing things on my own schedule, to being at school and following a strict schedule.
“But being at home also meant that I got a bit relaxed with my schedule, and sometimes it was hard because all I had to do in a day was school, and sometimes I would sleep in, I wouldn’t see my friends, and it was hard to find a good routine.”
Grade 11 student Avery Lebrun said, “Everything is so much easier to do in-person. Getting to do sports in-person again is so exciting. We get to travel to towns like Fort Smith for volleyball again, and it’s just really exciting.”
Mark Kilbride, Sir John’s physical education teacher, says being back in-person changes the way sports run in general at the school.
“It was a huge learning curve,” he said. “A lot of the onus was put on the students, we’d send out workouts and get them to videotape themselves doing it, and students would go out and do runs or bike rides and send in their distances or their GPS routes.
“We found different ways to do it, and students responded well to it, but it’s so nice to be back in person and actually do these things face-to-face.”
According to Kilbride, students reached out with their successes during remote learning, though were not as comfortable sharing when they were struggling, making it hard to gauge how they handled online classes.
“I think, though, that it was a difficult time, and we’re very fortunate to be back in person. It shows the importance of physically being here for everyone’s mental health,” he said.
Kilbride also says that since being back in person he has seen an increase in students participating in sport, and enthusiasm for early morning practices.
“Before the pandemic, I’d see 10-12 students on different teams,” said Kilbride, referring to hockey, cross country, and outdoor soccer.
“This year, it’s closer to 40, and I think people are just ready to be a part of something.”
Even with the excitement of being back in person, the GNWT says they will continue to conduct research to provide a more comprehensive analysis of the impact of the pandemic on the education system, and will monitor the well-being of students and the need for school-based mental health and wellness services.
South Slave Divisional Education Council’s superintendent Souhail Soujah says that many of the struggles now exist systemically and may not be visible to everyone at first sight.
“We know that some mental health issues are left over from Covid, pandemic anxiety and whatnot, and we want to facilitate education in any way we can,” he told Cabin Radio.
Soujah says that the focus for many students shifted during the pandemic as well, with an increased need for accommodations surrounding being safe and healthy.
“We focused on the very essential aspects of learning, so there’s a bit of loss in regards to learning during that time,” he said.
“But teachers are working really hard to catch up the kids, but it’s natural. It’s similar to being back after summer, we have to help them remember and refresh their memory or their learning.”
Soujah, the education council is working hard to support students navigating mental health struggles surrounding the pandemic and will continue to do so for as long as needed.