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One year later: How has COVID-19 impacted education and university admissions?

By Aressana Challand, March 30 2021—

One year since the Alberta government announced the shutdown of all daycares, schools and universities, the entire education system remains operating on a COVID-19 reinvention. Fall 2021 applications closed on March 1 and university admission application rates will unveil how well our system adapted to support students. 

Alberta’s education system faces a grim reality since COVID-19, shouldering the challenges of learning gaps, a rise in mental health cases and the state of quarantine that leaves primary and secondary students in a perpetual state of anxiety. The slash of government funding to Alberta post-secondary institutions only adds salt to the wound of students’ post-secondary futures. 

Despite this, university admission has not been negatively affected by COVID-19 as teachers, staff and administrators work tirelessly to support each student’s needs. Angelique Sawezsco, University of Calgary’s university registrar, said that as the university finalizes its Fall 2021 undergraduate application numbers, “we are eight per cent ahead in our domestic application numbers compared to last year and our international application numbers are ten per cent over last years, which is phenomenal given the context we are in right now.” 

Dr. Kelly Schwartz, an associate professor at U of C’s Werklund School of Education’s Applied Child Psychology Program, is leading a year-long study with primary and secondary school students in the Calgary Board of Education, the Calgary Catholic School District, the Edmonton Public Schools and the Edmonton Catholic Schools. Surveying students quarterly, Schwartz’s study focuses on primary and secondary students’ resiliency, adaptability and emotional impacts shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I was pleasantly surprised when we did our resilience measure. We used a well-established child and youth resilience measure and from the baseline data collected in 2015. We wondered when we did this survey in September and then in December, were we going to see noticeable declines in the places where students were getting their support?” Schwartz said.

Identifying differences in his sample from that of the data from 2015, Schwartz explained: “the areas of resilience — personal and social support through caregivers and teachers, contextual support, spirituality and culture — were a little bit lower, but they were not substantially lower than what the test developers found in 2015.”

Behind the scenes of the social and educational crisis the pandemic created, resilience among primary and secondary students has risen as the silver lining. Schwartz explained that his study “tells us that even though student stress is fluctuating in frustration with the pandemic, [the available] social supports are still staying solid.” 

Assistant Principal Cat Turner, at John G. Diefenbaker High School, liaises with the Werklund School of Education. Hannah MacDonald is one of John G. Diefenbaker High School’s guidance counsellors and supports the school’s scholarships and university admissions process. Turner agreed “the ability to bounce back between online and school has developed resilience, but what we see more is the impact of isolation.” 

“The verb that is really horrific this year is pivot,” Turner said, “the strategy at the beginning of the fall semester was to front and load and do reviews to see where kids are at. Students’ grades were frozen on March 13 last year, representative of one or two assessments. We have done a lot more interventions this year — keeping an eye on the academics, behaviours and attendance because of the outcomes of last year. Teachers have had to do a lot more than teach this year.” 

“From September of last year to March, students had no contact with their friends. This disconnect has made it hard to get kids motivated for this year.” explained Turner, “now, kids are learning that as learners they really need that human contact […]. What has helped kids succeed when learning online has been connection.” 

Turner and MacDonald emphasized the importance of social interaction with education, the two going hand in hand to support students’ development and future post-secondary plans. Turner and MacDonald described that it has been especially hard for grade 12 students to apply to university knowing that it may be online in the Fall 2021 semester. 

“As soon as you shift everything to online, it is not ideal in junior high and high school — you lose engagement and some panic can start to set in. Whether you like it or not, the quality of [online] education, with the content being covered, does not happen,” MacDonald added. “Some of our students are extremely resilient and adaptive. Some of our students have been isolated three-four times — they are not getting continuity with the teaching or delivery. For the majority, they have suffered. 

As a guidance counsellor, MacDonald explained that “kids are really struggling with their mood around the roller coaster education has become. Kids are in the classroom, then in isolation, then back in the classroom for two days.” 

The fluctuating nature of COVID-19 made a once stable environment for students increasingly shaky. MacDonald explained she has witnessed a “35 per cent increase in mental health issues — kids are exhausted.” 

The UCP’s cuts to public education and post-secondary funding are one of the most prominent impacts the pandemic has second-handedly inflicted on university admissions for Turner and MacDonald. 

“When I am working around students in regards to post-secondary, there are many that have no interest in perpetuating this online platform into University,” said MacDonald. “Prior to this, a lot of our high achieving students would take a gap year. We are seeing more high achieving students who are wanting to wait for an in-person experience.” 

Particularly for Alberta post-secondary institutions, MacDonald attributed that the government’s cuts can disadvantage Alberta in particular, as students choose other provinces. For Turner, “a lot of kids might go into the trades a little bit faster because they can easily get jobs in those areas.”

The increased student anxiety over the current online nature of university has left students with more questions about their future. University of Calgary Recruiter, Bobbi Bedard, noticed that “lots of students that I have talked to have been worried about the social aspects of university.” The U of C recruitment team utilized technology this year to bridge the connective needs students have as they begin what should have been a very networked new chapter of their life. 

Within the gloom, U of C’s increased admission rates for Fall 2021 display that post-secondary has not lost its appeal in this hybrid climate. The U of C Registrar “has seen more students applying, as well as [admission] grades creeping up a little bit,” said Sawezsco. 

“We do see a relationship [with optional diplomas] and anticipate our admission averages will be a little bit higher this year.” Looking at previous years, Sawezsco said, “we are seeing a difference in how grades are slightly higher because the diploma we know typically brings down the average a little bit — it ranges between 1-2 per cent depending on the exam. 

“We are not seeing any significant impact on the university so far. There is a lot of hard work going on behind the scenes to support students and make sure they are getting help in their application process, transitioning to university and while they’re here. All of these support processes that have been available to students remain, some of them have been ramped up more,” Sawezsco added.

“We have taken a case-by-case approach to students. We have modified some of our regulation approaches to students. We have done a significant amount of outreach,” said Sawezsco.

When describing how the university’s admission approach has shifted with COVID-19, Saweszco explained that “looking at all of the different resources we have to support students is our key piece right now.”

“For Fall 2021, it depends on where a student is coming from,” said Sawezsco. 

The pandemic shifted some of U of C’s admission regulations permanently. The administration used the opportunity to evaluate students on a case-by-case basis as a lens to future admission frameworks. 

“We have decided that we will no longer be accepting the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs). There is a significant amount of research to show that the SATs can disadvantage students from diverse populations. COVID brought that to the forefront when we started looking at what other schools were doing — that is something that will stay with us as we move forward as approved by our governance process. Students can still submit them as an option. We did extend the temporary language test — Duolingo, an online test available for students — for this cycle as well. To give students a variety of options, we will continue to accept this [online test] from this point going forward and permanently accept this test as we have more data going forward with it.”

The learning gaps the pandemic both grew and created cast a shadow of disadvantage to students in elementary and junior high, who could still be affected by this disruption, years later. U of C admissions will not dissolve the flexible accommodations graduating high school experiences are receiving when in-person learning recommences. 

“We have a supplementary process called Diverse Qualification. If a student feels they have been disadvantaged because of COVID for disruption in their education, they have an opportunity to apply through the diverse qualification process where we look at their academics but also those other factors,” said Saweszco. “Cases where students’ personal circumstances have not been optional — where they may not have the course to meet the average — but they provide supplementary information to explain their situation allows us to grant them admission based on their information. We will continue to do that, it’s a nice balance to regular admission and being accessible for students who have experienced some challenging situations.” 

Resiliency is key to how students will bounce back towards overcoming learning gaps, financial barriers and mental health issues. Schwartz’s study takes a cognitive approach to understand how grade 6–12 students’ attitudes of growth surrounding the pandemic within a school can lay foundations to pursue goals despite setbacks in their secondary years. 

“As we reflect on our data, we’re really encouraged by our data. We are finding that students, overall, are coping and adapting and changing really quite well to this. Almost four of ten of our students indicated that their families have lost significant income. I really think we’re going to look back on this time and say that stretching and growth are what resiliency is all about. One of my colleagues — I use his quote all the time — says ‘resiliency doesn’t happen if growth doesn’t happen’,” Schwartz explained. “So, if growth is happening that is a good thing and that is demonstrating that resilience is active and in place. I think that moving forward, the ability of students to deal with significant social change will make all of the other changes we think are big hassles actually less by comparison because they’ve had to make significant adjustments.”

Schwartz added, “We are actually calling this [pandemic stress] COVID fatigue. I think for students, currently and in the future, this will set the course for them for how they look at and prioritize a way through big changes and big challenges in their life because they’ll have this as a big touchstone.” 

Primarily with younger students, parents are wrought with worry over how to overcome the homeschooling that commenced last March. Schwartz explained that it is too early to understand the long-term academic effects of COVID-19, adding that “because the emotional part is so prevalent, you cannot separate what is impacting academics — is it truly the shifting delivery of the academics or is it because we have all the noise of all the social and emotional things occuring?” 

Schwartz’s study considered the age of students within sex to compare data collected with previous psychological findings for females and males during significant historical events. Looking at the current data collected between females and males, the study compared responses for teenagers 15–18 years of age to 12–14 years of age. Schwartz’s group found that COVID-19 has had more of a profound impact on females in senior highschool. 

“Females are more attuned to their emotions and being self-aware. In particular, the social aspects for them were disrupted during COVID — they lost that resource and a place where they could be a resource to their friends and their peers,” described Schwartz.

“When you combine all of the things that have changed in COVID, it does make sense that what we found tends to echo what we would have found pre-COVID. Teen females internalize worry and mood at a higher level than males. When you get into high school you are thinking about your future more,” said Schwartz, “15–18-year-olds are going ‘my future is now.’ We think it [a high school female’s currently unstable ability to plan for the future] was the weight of that which was added to all of the changes along with COVID.”

A common theme to how primary and secondary schools and how the Registrar has shifted its admission policies are rooted in Schwartz’s finding that “[students’] individual [experiences are] important to consider.” 

The resiliency COVID-19 imparted on students plants the seeds of motivation to aspire towards post-secondary. Despite the additional financial and socially isolating burdens, COVID-19 has pressed onto educational institutions, the university remains a fundamental aspect of a young adults’ life. 

Prolonged as the pandemic has become, the resiliency manifesting with COVID-19 can be overshadowed by the uncertain futures secondary students face. Macdonald added that she has not seen heightened resiliency flourish quite yet, indicating that without support, resilience is not as powerful a tool for high school students. 

Schwartz emphasized that a student’s confidence in university will rely on the structures of support available. “Students who were average or strong before the pandemic are likely holding their own. Those students who had educational challenges or needed more support before COVID, this has really magnified their need for support and extra assistance,” said Schwartz. 

“Being a psychologist, I think I’m as much about the non-academic aspects [than] I am about the academic aspects,” explained Schwartz. “It will be interesting to see how [the pandemic] impacts the next wave of students coming into university in terms of what demand will we see in support and accommodations as a result of this.” 

Put into perspective by Schwartz, we are all acutely affected by the pandemic. In a few years time, the education system will have had the time to readjust. Although the future cannot be predicted and more data will need to be accumulated, the most concrete positive impact COVID-19 has formed in students is their resilience and adaptability. 

Schwartz described that “the younger such a disruption occurs, the greater the rebound — the younger, the more resilient.” This resilience does not undermine the rise in mental health issues, anxiety or financial constraints, but helps to prove the phenomenon that despite the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on the education system, post-secondary remains a priority amongst soon-to-be graduates. 

“This is a positive thing for education in general — to see the strength that education has on children in regards to social support for resiliency, is what will allow education to retain its strength in the future. Children have adapted to this pandemic where the resilience they are learning will have a larger effect,” added Schwartz. “When we go back to class and see the social structure that we have missed, [we’ll still have] the resilience people have learned, to appreciate what we have and overcome the educational gaps or challenges that may persist.” 

The future of post-secondary admissions is grounded in optimism, reliant on the ability of the institution to continue adapting on a case-by-case basis. Students are resilient — learning gaps do not mean missed opportunities, instead, they indicate the responsibility for educators to provide mental health support, better communication and restructure guidelines. COVID-19 exposed flaws and gaps throughout Alberta’s education system and suggested that the system needed to be moved towards flexibility. Shifting policies as well as mindsets, university admission has remained stable amongst a teetering socio-economic landslide. 

For Saweszco, “it has been a very interesting year. It has been a lot of quick thinking and quick responding for students and staff. There is a lot of learning. You must stay positive, knowing this will come to an end at some point in time. We learned a lot about how we do things, what we do and how we can do things better. I think that’s the most important piece from this experience.” 

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