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Pandemic interruptions to school: are our kids really behind academically?

I got myself in hot water recently. I posted online that kids aren’t really academically behind due to the disruptions they’ve experienced in school and one of my followers was none to happy with my take on the issue.

“Parents have legitimate concerns about their kids’ academics going forward,” she said. Then, “who exactly is going to teach all this remedial education to kids as they move into post-secondary?”

Are our kids really behind academically? I don’t think so. While I understand parent worries (being a parent myself!), I think the worry is overblown. There are three main reasons I think our kids’ academic and career futures are going to be just fine.

There’s no discernible finish line

Being “ahead” or “behind” implies that there is a fixed and visible end goal. I challenge anyone to really think about that. Is there? And if so, what is it?

For the student who graduates from university “on time,” it would seem they have hit the finish line. But what if they didn’t really like their studies? What if they pushed through just to please mom and dad? Or their studies were fine, but they haven’t figured out a relatable career path yet? What if they spend the next two years working at a minimum wage job trying to figure out what to do next? Would you say they’re ahead or behind?

There’s also the ultimate end to consider. Average life expectancy is around 81 years in Canada. Some people will live to 3 days old, some will be over 100 when they die. If we put a bunch of 40-year-olds in a room and have no idea who will die when, how do we decide who is ahead and who is behind?

The impact is widespread

I came across an article recently that blew me away. Did you know that 1.6 billion students in over 190 countries have had their studies disrupted by COVID-19 school closures?

1.6 billion students in over 190 countries!

Two things I want to point out here.

One: obviously not everyone was impacted in the same way. Certainly some students experience significant barriers to academic achievement even without a pandemic. In part two, I’ll go into more detail on this, because I think it’s worth devoting some solid time to these students. For the majority of students, does a couple of bumpy years in high school dictate their ability to be successful for decades to come? I think that’s a resounding “no.” In the career development world, we see people reinvent themselves all the time in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

Two: given the widespread nature of these disruptions, universities are simply going to have to adjust. If a student has qualified for university, there should be no need for “remedial education.” Most of them are excellent students under normal circumstances. They’ll catch their stride soon enough with few simple tweaks. Perhaps professors grade with a bit more leniency. Maybe they skip a chapter from the textbook that they would normally include to space out course content. Did university faculty teach the exact same material using the exact same methods in September 2020 as they did in September 2019? Not likely. Adjustments have already been made. Why would they not continue?

Post-secondary education isn’t about to vanish

For anyone seriously concerned about succeeding academically at university, they should not be attending university. University is expensive and stressful. Forcing anyone into that level of academic rigour without proper preparation is tantamount to child abuse. I’ve seen the damage it does emotionally, mentally, financially and academically. It’s never a good idea, with or without a pandemic.

There are plenty of ways to pursue university education at different ages and stages of life. College transfer programs, gap year programs and admission deferrals are all great alternates. If there’s one thing we ought to have learned after 14 months of this pandemic, it’s that rest is necessary for healing. If a year off school prepares our kids to be more engaged and more successful later, it’s beyond worth it.

Join me next week for part two, where I’ll dive more deeply into impacts on students with significant barriers to success.

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