During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hundreds of schools across Canada closed their doors to students in favour of distance online learning. This generated a wave of research looking into the effects that home learning has had on children during this period. However, for the first time, researchers from the Offord Centre for Child Studies at McMaster University in Ontario have delved deep into the connections between the sociodemographics of children in particular school catchment areas in Ontario, barriers to distance learning, and concerns about the eventual return to the classroom as perceived by teachers, using data linkage techniques from two very different sources.

In a new study of kindergarten teachers and Early Childhood Educators in Ontario, it was found that for children living in lower income neighbourhoods, educators reported more barriers to online learning. Parents or guardians were less likely to submit assignments or provide educators with updates on the children’s learning. In addition, teaching staff also experienced more concerns about the return to school in the autumn of 2020, such as the children’s ability to readjust to routines. But interestingly, the study found no significant relationships with any other sociodemographic factors, or with levels of educator mental health with the area demographics of their school.

The researchers from the Offord Centre for Child Studies started the process by conducting a survey with Ontario kindergarten educators to find out about their experiences and challenges with online learning during the first round of school closures in spring 2020. Responses from the survey were then linked to data from the 2016 Canadian Census that contained school postcodes. By bringing these two very different sources of data together in a process known as data linkage, the study, led by Natalie Spadafora, was able to discern a clear connection between some socioeconomics of the various catchment areas for pupils, and the number of barriers and concerns educators reported. However, the lack of association between other area level variables, particularly with educator mental health, highlight that the impact of school closures was felt by all educators and students.

“Our study indicates that the impact of the school closures in the very first wave of the pandemic on youngest learners’ education and their teachers was similar regardless of the area – unlike what has been shown for health impact on adults”, Magdalena said.

Natalie concluded that, “To prevent barriers from impeding children’s learning in the future, efforts should be focused on individual kindergarten children and their families rather than the location of the school.”


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Professor Magdalena Janus, Psychiatry and Neurosciences and Natalie Spadafora, Ph.D., Offord Centre for Child Studies

Spadafora, N., Wang, J., Reid-Westoby, C. and Janus, M. (2020) “Association between neighbourhood composition, kindergarten educator-reported distance learning barriers, and return to school concerns during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario, Canada ”, International Journal of Population Data Science, 5(4). doi: 10.23889/ijpds.v5i4.1761.