How did the pandemic affect school grades? This researcher wants to find out

dr Sloane Freeman (Medical Media for MAP Center for Urban Health Solutions)

Now that kids are back at their desks, parents and teachers may be wondering: How far have they fallen after two years of pandemic disruptions?

dr Sloane Freeman, a researcher at the MAP Center for Urban Health Solutions and a pediatrician at St. Michael’s, wants to find out. It was funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) to examine whether Ontario high school students’ academic test scores have changed over the course of the pandemic and how this has affected students affected by exclusion .

We have with Dr. Freeman to understand the role education plays in health and how the pandemic may have affected both.

Anecdotally, before starting this research project, what did you see related to children’s academic performance during the COVID-19 pandemic?

dr Freeman: The pandemic has affected all of society and every health factor. Education is an important one. schools were closed. Children did not have access to face-to-face education and virtual education was really difficult for many children.

We’re already starting to see the impact in terms of learning differences, particularly among younger children. I think these can be positively addressed this school year. There is absolutely no lost generation of children who will not achieve academic success. We just need to be aware of the impact the pandemic has had on academics, social, emotional, mental and physical health and they are all connected.

As a pediatrician, what kind of problems have you seen in the past few years that you didn’t see as many of before COVID?

dr Freeman: I’ve noticed an increase in anxiety in younger children. It is more common to see anxiety in adolescents. Now I see a lot more of an impact on mood and certainly anxiety in younger children, even as young as kindergarten. This also affects education – it’s harder to focus, concentrate, feel good about studying when you’re worrying about other things.

What knowledge gaps do you hope to fill by examining the literacy scores, math scores, and academic achievement of Ontario children through your research?

dr Freeman: We want to see what has happened to the academic performance of Ontario youth since the pandemic and whether there were differences in standardized test scores before and during the pandemic. Our study includes high school-aged children, which is when standardized testing was conducted during the pandemic.

One of the main points we want to address is whether there are differences and whether they have been influenced by socioeconomic factors, mainly income. Has the gap that traditionally exists between children from higher and lower income families widened during the pandemic? Has it narrowed? Has it changed at all? These are the questions we are trying to answer.

What made you decide to deal with this topic?

dr Freeman: I work within the education system through the REACH School Network, a school-based health center program that provides school-based health care for children with developmental and mental health challenges who experience inequalities and barriers in accessing health care. Education as a determinant of health has always been a concern, and the pandemic has disproportionately affected children affected by poverty and social inequality. We wanted to measure how these children were affected.

Once we know that, we want to figure out how to focus our efforts in the education system and in the health system—as we work together—to address and fix these factors for the children that are most affected.

What have you found out in your research so far?

dr Freeman: While the results are not yet ready to be shared, I have reviewed the literature and identified what other countries are seeing and who else is studying this in their country. It looks like we’ll be among the first to show Canadian data.

In the United States, they’re noticing a decline in school performance since the pandemic, with a disproportionate drop in children who are racially abused and also considered low-income. Similar results are also found in Europe, with some variations. Some studies from Germany and the Netherlands show no changes between children from different income brackets – all were equally affected.

What do we do now? What advice do you have for parents who are processing the events of the last few years in order to put their children on the road to success?

dr Freeman: We want it to be as normal a school year as possible. The academic pieces will fall into place. We will continue to advocate for children who need it in the school system as pediatricians and educators truly are the best at addressing educational needs.

My personal advice is not to focus too much on academic performance and achievement, instead focus on the child’s confidence and how they feel about themselves. Your social and emotional health is most important, and once those needs are met, everything else follows. When emotional needs go unmet, it will be difficult to learn in any setting—pandemic or no pandemic. When emotional needs are met, it sets children up for success.

By: Ana Gajic

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