The home stretch, Part 3: An education expert on the lessons of COVID-19 speaks with People for Education’s Annie Kidder about how students and teachers are doing — and what they’ll need when they head back to class
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jul 21, 2021
Annie Kidder is the co-founder and executive director of the advocacy group People for Education. (Caley Taylor Photography)



This is the third instalment in a multi-part series. Read Part 2 here; watch for Part 4 on Thursday.

Sometime in the next few weeks, Ontario’s vaccination campaign will be essentially complete. It will not end, because there will be stragglers and new people aging into eligibility. But the main effort is only weeks away from completion. We will move into what military commanders would call the “mopping up” phase — the main fighting will be over, even if some skirmishes continue for some time.

This may not represent a final victory — we will need to remain vigilant against new variants that may defeat our vaccines. For now, at least, a return to something much more like normal is possible. Only time will tell what that new normal looks like, and that’s a topic for future analysis. The challenge (and opportunity) before us right now is different: What does this next phase look like? These coming weeks and months? What should we do right now, as we exit this long crisis?

In the coming days, will present interviews with a variety of experts who were all asked some variation of this question: What happens next in your field, and what must we do immediately? 

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Today: Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, on the challenge ahead in Ontario’s schools.

Matt Gurney: Annie, it strikes me that, when we talk about school, we’re almost talking about two separate challenges, even in the immediate transition period. The first is just getting a safe reopening accomplished after a year and a half of major disruptions. The next challenge is, once they’re open, starting to address the fallout of the closures.

Annie Kidder: I can’t say much about the first challenge, Matt. Safety is obviously important. But I’m not an expert on that — there are experts in that, but I’m not one. We’ll have to decide what safety means: Does it rest on vaccines, on HEPA filters, what? The good news is, by the fall, the teachers and staff should be fully vaccinated, and many of our older students will be, too, those 12 and over. But we have to make sure kids and teachers and support staff feel safe. Do they feel that all of their needs are being met in terms of that safety? Will they feel safe being indoors with someone? We have to worry about all of this when we go back in the fall. 

One of the things we’ve realized this year, I hope, or in the last year and a half, is that schools are very important. They make a big difference to a lot of people. Schools and education can lead to a lot of polarized debates. “This is right! There’s one way of doing this!” That has been the problem, I think, in many jurisdictions. What we haven’t been so good at in education is everybody sort of sitting down at the table together, figuring out answers from experience or from expertise. On safety, everybody can have an opinion about the class sizes, or quadmesters, but I think what’s important is having evidence, having people with experience, talk all those things through so that we’re not trying to, in a simplistic way, find solutions that are kind of quick and easy.

Gurney: I’ve often mentioned that I have two young kids, both in early elementary school. My daughter is old enough that she has memories of school and routine that are before COVID. My son doesn’t. He’s young enough that all his time in elementary school has involved schools being closed or virtual, then open again, and now back to virtual. So, for young kids, in particular, how do we re-establish routine?

Kidder: This is such an important question. And it is incredibly important to remember that a year and a half in a kid’s life, even a 10-year-old, is a huge part of their life. So for little kids, you’re right, this is normal for them. They think this is what the world is. Closed schools, everyone in masks, lining up to buy groceries. We have to really take that seriously. So it’s not just how do we make routines happen again. How do we understand what this has meant for kids of all ages? What it’s meant for kids who missed most of Grade 7 and Grade 8? 

That’s the time your body’s changing, your mind is changing, you’re going through adolescence, you’re just like a big pile of hormones. 

These are incredibly important moments in young people’s lives. And it’s easy for adults to dismiss this. Oh, well, you missed graduation, but actually missing Grade 12, missing transition moments in education, that really makes a difference. So for me, first of all, to your point about your son, we have to take seriously how he’s feeling, what that’s meant to him, the difference it’s made to him in terms of understanding what normal school looks like. What we can’t do is go, “Okay, everybody, just back to normal! Pretend that never happened!” Because, for young people, it really happened in a very, very big way — not necessarily an absolutely horrible way, but it definitely happened to them.

I think the first order of business has to be paying attention to that and figuring out how to slowly reintegrate that idea of routine and slowly understand where kids are — where they are in terms of their social capabilities, their understanding of communicating and relationships, but also their mental health, their feelings about their safety in the world. These things all need to be taken seriously.

Gurney: My wife’s a teacher. My social circle is full of teachers, and one of them said a smart thing at the start of the year. I’ve thought about it a lot. She said that, when she’s teaching Grade 3, at the start of a year, she assumes she’s got a class full of kids that are at a Grade 2 level. But she found in September that she actually had a bunch of kids who were at a Grade 1.5 level. The first wave, when we shut it all down, there wasn’t any virtual transition. The schools just closed, and they stayed closed. And that’s just missing months that are gone. Are there gaps in the education of Ontario students today?

Kidder: It’s hard to answer — there’s probably no “average” measurement of that, or the average doesn’t tell the story. So I think, for some kids, whose families had the capacity, and who were not kids who might struggle anyway, those kids are doing fine, and they won’t be “behind” as it were. But there are other kids who were already struggling for a wide variety of reasons. And who were in families that were also struggling, that had to go to work and did not have the capacity to provide all the support at home. Those kids might have a much bigger struggle when they’re back into a more normal school year. 

We all have to remember and take seriously that this pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on kids and an even more disproportionate impact on some kids. Look, I don’t know you at all. But I would bet your kids are going to be okay. They probably had lots of support, however stressful it was. It wasn’t just about whether you had the internet at home, but whether you had support at home. School’s over now, and it is really important that everybody’s playing and relaxing in the summer. The kids will probably be okay in the end — but for some, it’s going to be a long journey back.

Gurney: Look, in terms of knowing me, I’m very boring and disappointing in real life. But to your point, just, demographically speaking, you’re right. My wife and I are both high-education, high-income, we could work from home, we could provide help and supervision, we had great co-operation from our school and teachers, and we could afford private tutors for subjects our kids needed help in. And, also, and this feels like a boast, but it’s a stable home environment. [laughs] Believe me, I’ve had my moments! But it’s a safe, stable place. For some kids out there, school isn’t just a place where they learn. They probably get a ton of their emotional support, adult supervision, even nutritional support at school. And they’ve lost that for a year and a half.

Kidder: Yes. There are families that have been incredibly stressed, under incredible financial stress, incredible stress from COVID. Because COVID also disproportionately affected different populations. Imagine a child like your son without a lot of automatic family support So it’s not just about reading and writing and multiplication tables. Those are important! [laughs] But, really, more than ever, we have to make sure that we’re paying attention to all the skills and competencies that are important and that there isn’t a subject that’s more important than another or more important than that.

[Note from the author: the interview was now briefly interrupted by my idiotic basset-hound puppy attempting to eat the entire contents of my office waste bin, which Kidder took in stride and with admirable poise.]

Gurney: Okay, sorry about that. The vet said we should put a zipper in his stomach because he tries to eat everything he sees. Back to business (and hopefully he’s not digesting plastic or a paperclip right now). So let’s pick up where we left off: As we are getting kids caught up, do we need to adjust the curriculum to adjust for the lost time, or do we trust teachers to make the warranted adjustment as best they can in line with their local circumstances? I was thinking about my kids’ education as being like a snake and the COVID years as the big meal they just ate … will it get quickly digested, or is that snake gonna have a big lump in it, moving its way slowly backward for a long time?

Kidder: The intervention that’s needed is ensuring that there’s time and space to deal with the lump in the middle of the snake. For teachers, there needs to be time to truly assess where kids are, both from a mental-health perspective, a well-being perspective, and how they’re doing being reengaged in in-class education. There needs to be a lot of work at the beginning and time spent just understanding how everybody is, where everybody is, what their needs are.

To your question about the curriculum, there are goals and outcomes set out each year, so it would be hard for teachers and staff to just adjust that. So the top-down piece has to do with demonstrating an understanding that there will not be a back to normal. It’s really important for individual teachers to have the support that they need to be able to do that work, and it’s not going to be, say, a month, and at the end, you’re all caught up and back to normal. I honestly think it’ll take the full year. It will go back to what kinds of funding the boards have in order to provide more support staff, more counsellors, and other resources that are identified as needed. Teachers and principals are going to need the time and space to realize what the situation is.

Gurney: Speaking of teachers and staff and principals, I speak just from my own observations here, but I think virtual schooling was exhausting for them in a way they hadn’t anticipated. I think we have a very, very tired and burned-out teaching corps right now.

Kidder: This goes back to the danger of just ending up in polarized debates about what should or shouldn’t happen, because I think that all of us should recognize and bow down to the extraordinary work that teachers and people running schools have done in this time. They have transitioned back and forth, back and forth. They’ve tried to find the kids that they know are falling through the cracks. Some of them are teaching in real life and online at the same time; they’ve had to constantly redesign their plans as the world changed. So there is a worry about burnout. 

But I think the other part of the worry is that we end up wanting there to be a good guy and a bad guy in this conversation or to blame anybody for anything. And I’ve been a kind of broken record on this. We’ve been calling on the government to convene an education advisory task force, because it would really make a huge difference if everybody were at the table together. British Columbia has a table like that for months that includes educators, people from school boards, from the health sector, from the Ministry of Education, and students. You’re able then to recognize the extraordinary work that’s been going on and understand, you know, maybe there are parts of it that that could continue, things that teachers have learned that really work that they want to keep on doing. But I do think that we have to make sure that we’re not just being kind to teachers and support staff, but also recognizing how hard this has been for them. Others were able to just go, “Oh, I have my job. Now I can just do it at home.” A lot of teachers couldn’t.

Agenda With Steve Paikin, April 6, 2021: Ontario’s online-learning future

Gurney: Before this pandemic hit — and I’ve thought back to this a lot, and it seems wild now — but what I’d been writing about a lot just before we got those first reports out of Wuhan was the labour dispute between the provincial government and teachers’ unions. And one of the issues was union resistance to online learning! So, to put it mildly, we’ve got more than 9,000 dead in this province, millions dead around the world, the economy crushed, global supply chains disrupted … and we’ve kinda forgotten the political squabbles of 2019. Now that this seems to be ending, at least here, I’m wondering … do we remember all this? The lessons learned? Or do we forget this and snap back to the disputes of pre-pandemic time?

Kidder: We have to understand what we learned and understand where the system wasn’t resilient. We are lucky: we live in Ontario, we live in Canada, we’re incredibly rich, and we have education systems that are able to withstand quite a bit of shock, unlike some other parts of the world. That’s not true for all kids. But now we have to look at the problems that were amplified by this. And the biggest one was inequity, the inequity of outcomes. People have been sort of tinkering around the edges about it. But the pandemic exposed all the cracks. It showed places that have not been working well. And that’s one of the things that we really have to pay attention to going forward. 

There are other things that we have to think about in terms of why there are still kind of winners and losers and were during the pandemic. Think about extracurricular activities, which went away completely. For some kids from some families, that kind of enrichment was still available — they still had access to that, because of the families they were in. But many kids lost them completely. So we have to make sure that we pay attention to that, because even in a normal year, access to things like extracurriculars is still partly dependent on the school community’s capacity to fundraise for all the bells and whistles. There are big gaps between have and have-not schools.

And I hope we really learned this year the importance of that human face-to-face relationship between teachers and students. Teachers did their best online, but nothing replaces in-person. It’s a core element of learning. There are core social skills that are about interacting, communicating, and those are foundational skills. So, yeah, we talked about curriculum above, but let’s not forget everything else. Curriculum is always important and controversial. It’s debated. But sometimes that’s kind of to the detriment of all the other learning that could and should be happening. 

So what have we learned? What should we keep? I think online learning is here to stay in some way, and we can learn from that and use it. But let’s remember the core competencies that might not be included in the curriculum. 

We have to be thinking about it now. Not in the fall. We are a little bit behind already. I think that what we don’t want to be doing is making plans in August for what’s going to happen in September. The priority has to be time to assess the lay of the land. The priority cannot be, okay, let’s get those math drills going, because we’ve got to get caught up on your times tables, times tables! Get principals talking to directors, teachers talking to educational assistants, policy makers talking to ministers of education. Bring in the public-health officials and students. We could have this wonderful problem-solving factory giving advice to the ministry. 

Gurney: We’re only about two months away from schools reopening again, if all goes well and according to plan. Are we on top of this? Are we doing the things now that we need to be doing to make that happen?

Kidder: We are behind. There’s no collaborative table. We are getting little bits of announcements of money here and there. But I’ve yet to see a kind of overall big picture with deep understanding that this is the task ahead of us. So I do think we are behind.

Gurney: And a quick follow-up to that. Everyone is exhausted. Are we behind because all the decision-makers are burnt out and struggling, or is this a policy choice? A policy failure, really. 

Kidder: I don’t normally answer questions this bluntly. But now I will. Is this exhaustion? Nope! This is a choice. This is a failure. I do give credit to how hard everyone has worked. None of us have lived experience with this. Everyone is learning. But this is a question of political will. We can start this work. We can choose to do this. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

In the interest of full disclosure: since it was created in 1970, TVO has been part of the province’s delivery of distance learning. Today, TVO offers online secondary-school courses through the Independent Learning Centre; it has been asked by the province to help implement a provincial online-learning system in Ontario.​​​​​​​

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