The national charitable literacy organization Frontier College is sounding the alarm about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on literacy skills and learning in Canada. 

“The global pandemic has made us realize how critically important it is, now more than ever, to have access to literacy and learning support,” Frontier College’s Director of Communications Meredith Roberts told True North. 

“In response to the current COVID-19 public health emergency, we are currently the only national organization offering free online literacy programming to children, youth and adults.” 

Frontier College was founded in 1899 with the goal of teaching literacy skills to workers on logging camps, mines and railways. Since then, the organization has expanded to provide educational and community programs to adults and youth across the country. 

According to Roberts, a 2020 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report found that the learning losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could have wide-reaching economic impacts for nations as a whole and individual learners. 

“While the precise learning losses are not yet known, existing research suggests that the students in grades 1-12 affected by the closures might expect some 3% lower income over their entire lifetimes. For nations, the lower long-term growth related to such losses might yield an average of 1.5 percent lower annual GDP for the remainder of the century. These economic losses would grow if schools are unable to re-start quickly,” claims the report. 

“The economic losses will be more deeply felt by disadvantaged students. All indications show that students whose families are less able to support out-of-school learning will face larger learning losses than their more advantaged peers, which in turn will translate into deeper losses of lifetime earnings,” Roberts added. 

Little has been done by provincial and federal governments to address the specific issue of literacy, although efforts have been made to have kids return to the classroom. 

On March 12, 2021 the Government of Alberta revealed a new program targeting children from kindergarten to Grade 3 to help measure how the pandemic has impacted their literacy skills. 

“We know COVID-19 is having an impact on student learning. The first step is to find out what the impacts are. These assessments will help us understand how to better support student success in the classroom during these crucial early years, and address learning gaps that were created from the pandemic,” said Alberta’s Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange in a press release on the matter. 

According to Roberts, maintaining high literacy rates among the population will help shore up Canada’s economic footing coming out of the global pandemic. 

“People with weak, or even fair, literacy skills will struggle to find work. On the other hand, a highly literate workforce puts Canada on a strong footing to compete globally and thrive economically. Yet one million Canadian children under the age of 15 are estimated to have below grade-level literacy skills—that is about one in eight students. Changing this trajectory would help all Canadians,” Roberts told True North. 

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