The Reality of COVID Pandemic Learning Loss in Canada

Parent Resources

The effects of learning loss are real and apparent in the 2021-2022 academic year in Canada. From grade one right through university, students are confronting curriculum that’s leaps and bounds ahead of where they left off when they last enjoyed a consistent in-school experience. Not every student is overcoming those leaps as easily or as quickly as another. 

The issue with rehabituating Canadian children to the academic system and curriculum this year is that learning is always being driven by grade level expectations not by a child’s strengths and abilities. So the inability to deal with individual students’ learning needs, which already causes so many children to be placed on IEPs, has been made into an issue of even greater proportions.

Are you worried about your child’s progress in their first post-pandemic school year and beyond? We went straight to the source for her best tips: The Reading School Founder and Director, Diane Duff.

What is learning loss?

Diane: We typically associate learning loss with a reduction in a student’s skills for
want of practise. An example of typical learning loss is when a child is a little less quick with math facts after a summer of not working in arithmetic and practising. That might translate to not getting through classwork or homework as quickly. From there, the difficulty can snowball.

What evidence are you seeing of learning loss as parents reach out to TRS for support?

Diane: This year’s learning loss is exceptional. I’m hard pressed to call it learning loss, per se, as I believe it’s rather lost opportunity. Imagine a grade two teacher expecting certain knowledge and skills a student as they enter the school year. Now, even in a normal year that teacher is going to see great variety in skills and knowledge among her students. But this year’s grade 2 teacher is welcoming students who were in SK when Covid hit, and depending on any number of factors, may or may not have completed the SK curriculum, and may or may not have completed much of the grade 1 curriculum.

Are there potential long-term effects of COVID learning loss?

Diane: Yes, I think there will be long term effects. The problem is not just that our children are lacking some skills as they navigate this year. The problem is that the education system is just that: a system. The modern school system isn’t designed for teachers to deal with 20 children moving at their own pace. Parents who have advocated for their child with a learning disability know this.

Curriculum expectations by grade level are entrenched in the way teachers are trained, and cannot really be individualized. So, to come back to our example of the grade 2 teacher with students lacking SK and grade 1 skills, we know this teacher is nevertheless required by the system to deliver grade 2 curriculum. Next year, the grade 3 teacher will need and expect these students to to be approximately at the same place and to have acquired certain prerequisite knowledge and skills. Then again in grade four, and so on.

At The Reading School, we support many families whose children are struggling to learn to read. This year, we’re seeing students in grade 1 who haven’t yet developed adequate pre-reading skills, let alone grade 1 entry skills, because their Junior and Senior Kindergarten years occured during the pandemic. We’re seeing kids in grade 3 without the ability to read independently and to learn effectively through reading as one would typically do in third grade. Instead, we’re seeing third graders who are still trying to figure out how to decode words and understand phonogram-sound relationships.

We’re seeing it in the subject area tutoring division as well. The child who was in grade 7 when Covid hit is struggling with grade 9 math because they didn’t get enough practice with the important foundational work of the grade 7 and 8 math curriculum. This applies to various subjects across all grade levels, and particularly to high-school students learning complex and specific subject content.

Can we worry less because ALL students are experiencing this?

I hate to break the bad news, but I don’t think so. While all students have experienced learning loss, not all students will recover easily without direct support. The student in grade 3 this year will enter high school in 6 years. That seems like a long time, but they’ve got 6 years to get through 8 years of knowledge and skills – across the curriculum. How well they innately process language, how far along in their reading journey they are, how much they participated during distanced learning, as well as how resourced their family is will all have a bearing on their ability to overcome this gap.

It’s important to consider that students are not equally privileged in their ability to access tutoring, reading support or even assessment. According to Prachi Srivastava, professor in education and global development at Western University, “When you have real disruption, it is not going to be equitable, because those families that have other resources can always supplement.

Those children that are coming from lower income households, parents with less education, from more racialized backgrounds, from backgrounds that are marginalized in other ways, will experience relative to their peers even more learning loss.”

What do you recommend parents do at home to help?

Parents of olders students can foster open communication with their children and teachers about expectations and how well the child is coping. If the material is not coming easily this year, reach out for support at the earliest chance. 

For parents of younger students, my advice is to reframe these challenges and your expectations for this year. I think parents should do what the education system is probably not ready to do, and that is to change their attitudes toward what’s truly most important in an elementary school curriculum.

When it comes down to it, we can strip much of the elementary curriculum to its core language and mathematical foundations. Focus your energy on ensuring your child’s full literacy and numeracy. Everything else will come along if the children have strong math, reading and writing skills.


How do you feel about your child’s learning experience so far this academic year? Do you feel they are learning differently, or with less ease than in the past?


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