Graeme Hopkins never imagined failing a class, so it came as a shock when it happened last year while struggling with his revamped high school schedule.
“I really had no idea how to respond or how to address it,” said 12th grader at Evan Hardy Collegiate in Saskatoon.
The 17-year-old high school was one of many across the country that has moved to heavy schedules due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
To keep students in groups and reduce communication, schedules adjusted due to the pandemic are making them learn fewer topics at once, but spend more time in each class each day. However, students must also progress quickly in these subjects before moving on to different courses, as they are generally expected to take the same total number of courses over the course of the school year.
While some schools have resumed the regular semester system this year, Saskatoon high schools have moved from a quinquennial system, with five semesters per year, to one quarter. This means that students now take three classes a day – two of them 132 minutes. The two longer classes are changed to new classes approximately every two months, while the third term is an hour long and extends the length of the traditional term.
These intense schedules, used in Ontario as well, are having a negative impact, both students and school staff say. Although some districts plan to resume more regular schedules based on local public health advice, others are sticking to revised schedules for the rest of the school year.
Hopkins says he’s experienced issues of fatigue, anxiety, and low self-esteem in the past year. He hopes that sharing his story will help others go through the same experience.
“There was no joy in my life,” he said. “What made it worse was that I thought I was too alone because no one was talking about it, at least I didn’t know it.”
Hopkins says math and science courses are most affected by the compressed schedule.
“You were thrown into exams and tests without really being prepared at all just because you didn’t have that time to study or to solve any problems you might have understanding the concepts,” he said.
He plans to take an extra year of high school to absorb the math and science courses he left out.
Ontario Plans Transformation in February
Meanwhile, high school students in Ontario currently take two classes a day, for two and a half hours each. Some schools run a quadrant system, in which subjects are changed into a pair of new classes every 10 weeks.
Other schools have opted for a “modified semester” system, in which students cycle between taking two subjects one week before moving to a pair of two different subjects the next day. The pivot continues throughout the traditional semester.
At a news conference last Thursday, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced that Ontario high schools “will resume a regular schedule model of four courses per day beginning in the second semester.”
Lecce also said that “if the school board gets support from the local public health unit to change its schedule,” that change could come earlier.
Diana Wang Martin, a chemistry teacher in Mississauga, Ont., says she will have happy schedules back to normal in Ontario and hopes her school can make the change ASAP.
She points out that her students were not allowed to conduct labs because of the pandemic, which only exacerbates the problem of long classes.
“Imagine you are doing science where students expect hands-on labs and hands-on activities, but instead they sit at their desks for two and a half hours each semester,” she said.
Watch | Teachers and high school students frustrated with intense school schedules:
Wang Martin also said that in her 20 years of teaching she hasn’t seen so many students “with mental health issues, just from the pure exhaustion of having to deal not only with a pandemic, but also with… [the modified semester] learning model.
The school principal praises the return to normal
Cathy Abraham is the President of the Association of Public School Boards of Ontario and is also a member of the School Board of Trustees in Clarington, Ontario. was her organization call for change Returning to normal, she says, is “really good news for students, and it’s really good news for teachers.”
Abraham believes that, depending on the schedule they have now, some councils may return as early as February, when the second period begins.
For example, because it uses the modified semester system and has a high vaccination rate among 12-17 year olds, she believes Halton County Regional School Board is one example that could make a schedule change early.
Saskatoon commits to the year
Back in Saskatoon, it looks like many high school students will continue to have intense schedules this school year.
Paul Janzen, superintendent of Saskatoon Public Schools, says local public health advice indicates that it will be important to maintain some sort of cohort system before this fall. The quart system in Saskatoon is based on a mixture of those tips and feedback from a survey given to students, teachers and caregivers about their quint experiences last year.
“We told our schools to meet with a maximum of three groups of students per day,” Janzen said, noting that some high schools were able to get creative with scheduling ninth-grade students, allowing them to take more than three courses at a time.
He says the district will look closely at academic data such as the credit score from the recently completed first quarter, but says there are no plans to make changes before the school year is over.
He said the district will go through the same feedback process as before and reevaluate things after the school year.
Meanwhile, Hopkins was inspired to act last summer, starting a petition asking his school board to return to regular classes. While the academic impact of these changes has been challenging, the experience has given him a new perspective.
“I used to be very fortunate: I had a normal education, everything was fine, and the struggles were few and far between,” he said.
“But now that I’ve had this kind of experience where I’ve had such disastrous effects on myself, going through so much of this as a result of my schedule, I feel more compassion for others.”