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Pandemic, labour disruptions raise questions about 2020 report cards

A classroom sits empty. UNSPLASH/Rubén Rodriguez

Ontario’s teachers have not yet written year-end report cards for their students, but Paloma del Castillo already knows what hers will look like.

The Grade 11 student said her marks were all but pre-determined in mid-March when schools across the province shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Ministry of Education then informed teachers that no student’s marks could decline from levels attained at the time the closures took effect.

Del Castillo, 16, said her teachers will therefore be basing her end-of-semester grades on three months of fragmented online learning and just six weeks of in-person instruction. Those classes, she said, were themselves disrupted by a series of rotating, one-day teacher strikes that took place across the province during labour negotiations between the government and Ontario’s education workers.

The pending report card lacks any real meaning, del Castillo said, noting it won’t give students a realistic assessment of their recent academic progress – or their ability to take on more advanced material next year.

“It’s definitely harder from home to really understand the material and to be able to apply it just from learning in your bedroom,” del Castillo said. “That’s concerning for me, because those are classes that I actually want to retain information from so that I can use them in the future.”

Teachers and parents share del Castillo’s concerns, questioning the ultimate value of report cards in such an unusual school year.

They said the labour disruptions, which eventually resulted in nearly weekly class cancellations in the early months of 2020, had already created an atypical learning environment.

But the pandemic-related shutdowns that forced students and teachers alike to abruptly shift to online learning, they said, represent the greatest challenge as report card season gets underway.

Albert Fong, a high school science teacher in Mississauga, Ont., said there’s a “clear disparity” between the student experience before and after classes went online.

Laboratory work is all but impossible, he said, though he noted creative home-based projects have helped fill the gap in some courses.

Fong said that while some students continue producing excellent work, the quality of the educational experience can’t be compared – and report cards, he said, can’t help but reflect that reality.

“I taught the same courses for the first semester and the second semester, and in no way are they even remotely the same,” he said. “The authenticity of the evaluation is what I believe most high school teachers are apprehensive about.”

The Ministry of Education, when asked for comment, referred to a May 27 memo to education directors offering general guidance on reporting and assessment. The memo confirmed that marks cannot be lowered from where they stood on March 13.

Wendy Burch Jones, a Toronto-based mother of two elementary-aged boys – and a teacher herself – said she appreciates the province’s recognition of the extraordinary times. However, she said the radical shift in the approach to learning will make true assessment difficult for even the most well-meaning instructor.

Most elementary school evaluations are based heavily on observation and interaction, she said, which are much more difficult in a virtual classroom. A teacher’s end-of-term reports, she argued, will be based on the sort of data sample that would never pass muster under normal circumstances.

“I would never expect, as a parent, to get a comprehensive report card in the first week of October,” she said. “But effectively, that’s what’s being asked of teachers.”

The online learning environment is also a concern for Andrew Campbell, an elementary school teacher in Brantford, Ont.

Campbell said students and teachers in remote and rural areas are largely shut out of e-learning, due in part to sporadic internet access in those communities.

He said some students have been unable to complete work at all, while teachers in remote areas have been known to sit in school parking lots in hopes of conducting lessons on more stable Wi-Fi networks.

Campbell said this year’s challenges have reinforced his fundamental questions about the value of report cards, which he described as an outdated reporting tool that only offers feedback once it’s too late to take any action.

He said he hopes this unusual school year will prompt a re-examination of how teachers communicate with students and their families.

“I hope we’re moving towards an assessment system where students and families are getting information ongoing, all the time and report cards … confirm what they already know,” he said.