Students still need help after COVID-19, Hamilton Trustees say in call to renew provincial learning fund

With $7.1 million in provincial funding, Hamilton Public Schools were able to hire extra staff to help children catch up after more than two years of learning disruptions due to the pandemic, according to school board trustees.

But the former COVID-19 Learning Recovery Fund for 2022 to 2023 is about to end, despite many students not having fully recovered academically, socially or emotionally, said board chair Dawn Danko.

That’s why she, on behalf of the trustees of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB), sent a letter to Education Minister Stephen Lecce this week, urging him to extend the program.

“We are hearing loud and clear that the impacts of the pandemic have not been resolved,” Danko told CBC Hamilton. “It took us three years to get here. It will take more than a year to fully recover.”

Reading and math skills are top priority, says province

The minister’s office said in a statement that the government continues to fund education “at the highest levels in our province’s history” and has committed to hiring an additional 7,000 student support workers.

“We look forward to increasing investment where students need it most, focusing on reading and math skills,” said spokesman Harrison Fleming.

Danko said he’s heard from principals, teachers and parents that some students are still struggling with their academics, mental health, social skills and conflict management skills.

Minor conflicts between students in classrooms, hallways and schoolyards quickly escalate into major conflicts, Danko said. And students still struggle with group work, which was not allowed during the pandemic.

Danko is chairman of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board and trustee of Ward 7. (Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board)

The exact breakdown of how the learning recovery money was spent has not been publicly released because the trustees are currently in discussions about the 2023-2024 budget, HWDSB spokesman Shawn McKillop said.

The board generally said it funded extra teachers, early childhood educators and educational assistants.

Daryl Jerome, Hamilton district president for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, said its members are reporting that some students continue to have trouble regulating their emotions and lash out violently at themselves and other students.

The additional recovery funding meant there were additional support staff to “re-engage” those students hardest hit by the pandemic, Jerome said. When it’s over, he expects there will be a negative impact.

Too early to withdraw funding, parents say

Alicia Cox Thomson is the chairperson of the school board at Adelaide Hoodless Elementary School, where her two children are in grades 1 and 4. needing support.

“It’s too early to withdraw the learning catch-up fund because some of the kids who didn’t get the foundation they need in grades 1-3 due to remote learning are now struggling in grades 4-6,” Thomson said. “Remote learning has stalled growth for students at all levels and we are still seeing the effects.”

Ontario students have experienced more than 20 weeks of school closures — more than any other province or territory, said a 2021 report by the Ontario Science Table. Research has shown that even with online options, school closures lead to learning losses and disproportionately affected students of color or with lower socioeconomic backgrounds or disabilities.

The scientific table said the impacts of learning disruptions will be an “ongoing challenge” and the social and economic costs “potentially devastating and could well outlive the immediate period of the COVID-19 pandemic”.

Students still need help after COVID-19, Hamilton Trustees say in call to renew provincial learning fund

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