“This past year has been excruciating. It’s [an] absolute pain to have to sit through 4–5 hours of hearing my screen talk to me," wrote one Grade 11 student.
A student in Grade 12 whose school used the quadmester system this past year said having one week of one class and then another class the following week "has been stressful and not an amazing experience."
"This has put a lot of stress on me as I am responsible for my family’s well-being, and has led me to avoid any friendships this year for fear of them wanting to hang out at some point," wrote a Grade 11 student who has immunocompromised family members at home and was attending school in person.
"COVID-19 has changed my experience in my life completely. My quality of education has decreased, my mental health has gotten worse, and I am not feeling very prepared for post-secondary," wrote another high school student.
These are just a few examples of the experiences of Ontario students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their stories were shared in a new report called "Learning and Living During a Pandemic" and released by the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association (OSTA-AECO) on Wednesday. It's the first in the association's three-part series titled "The Volume of Our Voices." Students were asked to submit their stories between January and May 2021.
Though the report lists several areas students struggled with this past year, there were some positive notes among the submissions as well.
The same student who felt a dip in the quality of their education said the quadmester system, where the school year is divided into four segments and students take two courses at a time, was "not terrible, I enjoy being able to only focus on two classes."
One student wrote of "amazing teachers" they had this year who "tried their best to let me know I am cared for."
"I can say the teachers have been putting in the most effort they can and it is the most they can do given the situation we are in," wrote another.
Joy Liu, a Grade 12 student at Colonel By Secondary School in Ottawa who is also on OSTA-AECO's executive council, said what stood out for her was the "breadth and diversity of experiences that students have had during this pandemic."
When it comes to mental health, Liu said while some struggled with self-esteem and staying motivated, others learned how to manage that. It was similar with quadmesters and octomesters.
"There are some students who really don’t like the quadmesters and octomesters and others find it actually easier to juggle fewer subjects at a time," said Liu, who added that she was personally not a fan of the octomester system because she found the rapid pace of covering course content and frequent tests stressful.
As the pandemic continues and the government and school boards plan for September, OSTA-AECO encouraged them to "take lessons learned from the current school year and apply changes to improve upon plans and models for the upcoming one."
Liu said students are "really important sources of feedback that should be guiding the decisions that are made by school boards, by the ministry, by teaching staff."
Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said that families will have the choice of in-person or remote learning for the 2021-22 school year.
In a recent memo to school boards, Lecce wrote that high schools should implement timetables "that emphasize cohorting of students as much as possible and to limit the number of student-to-student contacts."
"School boards will be required to limit schedules to two in-person classes (such as quadmestering) with exceptions for schools where contacts can be limited by cohorting grades or if the overall size of the school is small, making contact tracing manageable," said the memo, noting that boards looking at an alternative to quadmesters should contact the ministry.
Student trustees said in their report that boards should "create a contingent pivot and transition plan to the regular semester or non-semestered model during the 2021-2022 academic year, if or when the local public health circumstances permit such a return."
OSTA-AECO called on school boards, schools and educators to collect and implement feedback from students about remote learning and to "standardize break lengths" between classes, with Liu noting that this has been "wildly different" across the province this year with some students getting five minutes and others getting 30 minutes.
As for the government's consultations about whether remote learning should become a permanent option within the school system, OSTA-AECO advised against it because of an "intrinsic shortfall of opportunities for social engagement and emotional development in a virtual learning environment."
The association also said it wanted the government and school boards to work with community groups to provide "virtual extracurricular opportunities and events to students."
Meanwhile, OSTA-AECO's report also noted that more than 60 per cent of the students who made submissions for the first volume referenced their mental health.
"Students have learned to be resilient over the course of this pandemic, but this resilience and well-being must be supported," the report stated. "Schools exist as a support system and are an essential hub for students to seek internal and external mental health resources. Now more than ever, it is crucial to commit resources and strategies to support mental health."
The organization called for school boards to "proactively inform students of school mental health resources" and for the ministry to boost funding for guidance counsellors and "specifically outline the role of guidance counsellors" so students know who to go to for help with academic success or mental well-being.
"I think in general students don’t always know, 'Am I going to a guidance counsellor for mental health support or is their role to direct me to broader community supports or other school supports?'" said Liu. "That type of confusion makes it hard for students to know where to turn to, but I think also on a system level, it makes it harder to assess whether students' needs are being met in school."
The Ministry of Education noted that guidance counsellors have several roles including helping students seek support for mental health, giving the example of referring a student to a board social worker.
The student trustees' association also flagged the issue of anti-Asian racism in its report, noting it has "drastically increased" during the COVID-19 pandemic and "cuts deep" for students who are already dealing with several issues related to school life and the pandemic.
They called for the government to fund an Office of Human Rights and Equity for each school board to help with identifying and addressing "systemically-based human rights and equity issues."
The ministry said it has funded human rights and equity advisors in select boards since 2018-19 and that 14 boards had them this year. The government said it would expand this to include five full-time equivalent positions in other boards next school year.
The Ontario Public School Boards’ Association said it was reviewing the student trustees' report.
"We have an excellent working relationship with our student trustees and appreciate the work that went into this report," said a spokesperson for the association. "Student success and well-being is a top priority for all of our member school boards. Many of the issues identified in the report are ones that school boards across the province are working to address. It is always helpful to gain insight into the student perspective on the important issues raised in this report."
Caitlin Clark, a spokesperson for Lecce, said the government has been continuously working to introduce changes that better the education system.
"We are committed to breaking down barriers that impede the success of students, in particular racialized and under-represented young people and enshrining accessibility and choice for students and parents this September," Clark wrote in a statement.
"Now, more than ever, we continue to recognize the critical role our education system plays in supporting social development, physical and mental health, and the well-being of Ontario’s students, which is why the ministry allowed schools to offer clubs and organized sports where distancing would be possible," she added. "While the safety of all of Ontario’s students and staff continue to be our top priority, we are committed to restoring as normal a school year as possible including extracurriculars, gym, and other activities that are critical to the mental and physical health of students."