As youth are preparing for their return to school, back-to-school prep holds different meanings for families across our region.
Those living in low-income neighbourhoods—and rural communities—often have unequal access to resources like technology, school supplies, and learning supports that help them keep up in school. This inequality can widen the gap in academic achievement between kids living in low-income households and those who are better off financially, resulting in learning loss.
The COVID-19 pandemic and switch to learning from home exacerbated learning loss across our region and demonstrated the importance of addressing the academic achievement gap for vulnerable children and youth—something we advocated for ahead of the release of the federal government’s budget in April 2021.
United Way believes that every child has the right to a good life, a safe place to grow up, learn, and make good friends—no matter where they live or their personal circumstances. That’s why we work together with donors, businesses, government, organizations and partner agencies to ensure every kid has the basic building blocks to stay on track to succeed.
The years disconnected
While many schools offered in-person lessons in the last year, continued interruptions and periods of return to remote learning were common as the pandemic fluctuated. Remote learning, while necessary to protect our communities, has not worked for all kids.
Many youth struggled with access to materials and engagement in their learning. Kids who have barriers to technology and internet access, are without adult support, or need hands-on learning approaches have seen a widening academic achievement gap since the pandemic began.
The Worldwide Commission to Educate All Kids (Post-Pandemic) states that education is the least understood but most consequential human catastrophe of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is for two reasons: the massive number of children (estimated to be more than 200,000 in Canada) who stopped attending any type of schooling during the pandemic, and the destabilization or disruption of school systems and academic trajectories for children.
Schools are at the center of our communities and are hubs of social activity for youth. When schools closed, many were unable to get the essential social contact needed for proper learning and development. The disconnect and isolation led to more youth reporting more serious mental health issues including problematic substance use and suicidal ideation.
COVID-19 poses an enormous equity challenge when it comes to school.
The effects of the pandemic will be felt in the upcoming school year. Many kids have been set back not only academically, but also in social and emotional learning and mental health. Some have experienced grief, financial strain, and isolation.
The burden of back to school lists
Back to school often brings an air of excitement for kids as the upcoming year is full of possibilities: new friends to connect with, teachers and mentors to learn from, and clubs to explore their passions. However, for many across our region, the end of summer can bring stress and anxiety as school supplies can be a financial burden and strain on families.
If parents and caregivers don’t have the means to equip their kids with the tools they need to succeed in school, this can widen the academic gap and increase the risk of learning loss when remote learning is factored in.
This gap can widen as students enter the upper years of their education. High school students often require more specialized learning supplies like math sets or graphing calculators, and as a result, the list of back-to-school supplies becomes longer and more expensive.
Partnering for success
PCL Construction in Ottawa wanted to ease a burden on families across our region and help youth feel confident and prepared to tackle the upcoming school year. Last year, PCL employees banded together to fill 226 backpacks with more than 3,000 school supplies.
The initiative was such a hit that PCL decided to participate for a second year and set a target for their team to fill 250 backpacks this time around.
Not only did PCL meet their goal, but they also surpassed it and were able to pack 283 backpacks with school supplies for high school aged youth in communities across our region.
Backpacks were delivered to partners in all corners of our region, benefiting kids in Prescott-Russell, Lanark County, and Renfrew County. For rural communities in particular, the need for support is greater than ever this back-to-school season.
On top of existing issues of food insecurity and the financial burden of the pandemic, families are feeling the impact of the severe affordable housing shortage in our region. This has increased the need for support from programs such as Backpack Kit Building.
However, despite the increased demand, rural communities often don’t have the same access to programs of this kind as their urban counterparts. To combat the gap in support, a large portion of this year’s backpacks were distributed to the rural communities we serve.
In Ottawa, backpacks were delivered to the Russell Heights Community House is a non-profit organization dedicated to the wellbeing of the children, youth, and families.
For nearly 30 years, they have served a culturally diverse, rent-geared-to-income social housing community in South-East Ottawa. The community is comprised of large families, many of which are headed by single parents or newcomers.
Summer-camp programming was in full swing at RHCH when the backpacks were delivered. Our delivery team made quick work of the drop-off thanks to the kids, who lined up at the U-Haul eager to lend a helping hand—and show off how many backpacks they could carry at once!
“The return of the Backpack Kit Building program for a second year is exciting”, says Sara Dwyer, Executive Director at RHCH.
United Way sees firsthand how so many families in our communities are deeply impacted by the effects of COVID-19. When individuals and organizations like PCL Construction show their local love, we can lift people out of the daily struggles that make life difficult.
The increased social needs of our communities—especially our kids—will require our continued attention for years to come. Please consider donating to United Way to ensure kids are set up for success for the long-term.