Newcomer Students Face Heightened Challenges With Online Learning

Seven kids, Grades 1 to 6, at varying levels of learning English.
Seven different teachers. Two different schools.
Parents who don’t read or write English. A volunteer in a different city.

When the pandemic hit two years ago and Ontario schools closed, Erinn Burke, a volunteer with the New Canadians Centre in Peterborough/Nogojiwanong, Ontario, was a key member of a support group for two newcomer Kurdish families but was attending school in Toronto at the time. There were four children in one family and three children – their cousins – in the other.  

First she needed to get them access to the necessary technology – chrome books, home laptops, wifi. Then there was the need to develop a communication plan with the teachers who used Edsby or Seesaw, for example, to keep in contact with parents.

There were dozens of passwords to assemble:  school accounts and google classrooms but also programs like Khan Academy, Prodigy for math, and Raz Kids and Epic for reading.

“We’ve all heard a lot or experienced in some way as a parent or teacher or grandparent or other caregiver about how difficult it’s been trying to have kids learn at home,” said Burke, now a social worker with Peterborough’s separate school board, in an interview. 

“But to walk a child through that when we weren’t together and who is still learning English is quite the experience. We’re talking hours and hours of screen time just trying to get things set up,” Burke said.

“It wasn’t ideal learning for any of them.

COVID-19 is once again forcing Peterborough residents to cope with an upward trend of the virus in its community and its impact on its schools, teachers and students. Will schools close yet again? And what will be the consequences? What lessons can be learned from past closures?

And while there has been a lot of attention on the effects and challenges of online learning, one group has been mostly left out of the conversation — newcomer students.

The province’s schools have been closed 27-plus weeks since March, 2020, longer than any other Canadian jurisdiction and most European countries, according to the Ontario Science Advisory Table.

FILE PHOTO: A grade two classroom awaits students at Hunter’s Glen Junior Public School, part of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), a day before classes reopen for the first time since the beginning of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Scarborough, Ontario, Canada September 14, 2020. Nathan Denette/Pool via REUTERS

The Science Advisory Table notes school closures are associated with substantial mental health and “educational attainment harms”. These risks are cumulative and are disproportionately experienced among families from marginalized groups, it says.

Newcomer students are among those groups of vulnerable students identified as having experienced the “biggest impact” of school closures as they pivoted from in-class to virtual learning and back again, it continues.

At Peterborough’s New Canadian Centre (NCC), staff are well aware of those impacts. 

“Many English language learners really struggle learning in an online environment,” says staff from the NCC’s Settlement Workers in Schools, a school-based outreach program for newcomer families.

“Newcomers face many of the same issues other students face but they are definitely heightened,”: Peterborough’s New Canadians Centre staff.

“Overall most students generally seem to prefer in person to online. They miss their friends and teachers.  Most students miss the social aspect, for sure,” they said.

When contacted by JOURNEY Magazine, immigration and refugees workers, teachers, students and volunteers all touched on numerous differences that newcomer students face: issues around technology, socialization, family responsibilities and expectations, parents’ lack of English, family trauma, and religious and cultural practices. 

“Regular attendance was an issue among newcomer learners, too,” said SWIS staff. “Some youth struggled to come to (virtual) classes and engage with the teacher. The reasons for this are varied but one major reason was that it was intimidating to do so much reading and writing in English, without the body language and patience of an in-person teacher.”

When secondary students did not attend they were missing multiple days of lessons in one day because the semesters were compacted, they said.

“Missing one full day meant that you were missing three to four days worth of material for the one class. This led to students falling behind and never catching up with their school work.”

Susan Scott is another NCC volunteer who spent time helping a Syrian family with five kids aged four to 16 during school closures in Peterborough.

Scott, the main contact with their school, remembers how little parental engagement there was with their at-home learning. 

“The boy’s mom was sitting beside him and she wasn’t really engaged at all, nor was she helping her daughter in another room.” 

“Because of her lack of (English) language she couldn’t do anything and she wasn’t trying to be involved in what he was doing. The dad was upstairs, which is a shame. No judgement –  that’s just what was happening,” said Scott.

Parents and children may be worried about family members back home and feel isolated and home-sick, or be dealing with  memories of traumatic episodes and war experiences.

Lainey Bates, an  itinerant resource teacher for English language learners (ELL) with the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board who supports ELL students from Kindergarten to Grade 12, shares below some newcomer family situations she has witnessed in her eight years with the school board, and which are not favourable to remote learning.

  • parents often have limited English ability and may not be able to support student learning 
  • many newcomers have multigenerational households with many children in small living quarters who must share learning spaces
  • parents and children may be worried about family members back home and feel isolated and home-sick, or be dealing with  memories of traumatic episodes and war experiences
  • families may be struggling with financial hardship
  • students may be responsible for taking care of younger siblings or family members with disabilities or health issues
  • All of the above challenges, all at the same time.

Newcomer student responses to online learning have been “very diverse,” Bates said, in an email interview, and much depends on the child or youth.

Some students are adept with technology and feel shy speaking to other people, so being online is their preference, she said.

“But some find it so difficult they decide to not participate at all.”

Motivation and interest can also be issues.  

“Learning with your class, group work, work with other support staff, and even just the ability to change environments helps learning and keeping students on track,” said Bates.

“In general, in-person learning is best for most language learners because at home you do not have the benefit of social conversations, and direct access to your teacher to ask questions or confirm your understanding of what you are learning,” she continued.

Teachers also find this difficult because they are not able to easily circulate among the students who they know will need more help and cannot “keep an eye on their progress so they can intervene if there is a problem”, said Bates.

In a cultural consideration, “one of the shut down periods occurred during Ramadan (the Muslim holy month) when many families fast during the daylight hours,” she said.  

“Because we were all locked down, some students tended to stay up all night and sleep during the day, so we needed to encourage them to get back on schedule.”  

By far, the biggest problem for newcomer kids and parents seemed to be technology –- lack of knowledge about it, lack of access to it, poor internet service –either due to financial hardship or sharing among large families.

“Yes, lack of knowledge about technology is a major difference between the two groups (newcomers and non-newcomers),” says the NCC SWIS team. “Explanations and communication about technology from schools is, of course, in English which makes things difficult for parents and students.”

“Some families have never used a chromebook, email, or even a computer before.”

During school closures, solutions for all online learning challenges, it seems, fell on the shoulders of school settlement workers, teachers and other school staff, unless families were lucky enough to have volunteers like Burke and Scott.

Schools worked hard to distribute the necessary technology, said the NCC SWIS team, and English Language Learner teachers helped get kids online and navigate the tech and school work while administration, classroom teachers and ELL itinerant teachers went above and beyond to help connect kids. SWIS helped troubleshoot and acted as a bridge between school and home, often meeting with youth and families online to discuss and solve needs.

“We know that ELL students need extra support in the form of adapted programs, extra tutorial support, and specialized learning,” said Lainey Bates.  “We have five itinerant resource teachers for our board that travel around providing help with this, but schools also allocate staff whenever possible to provide support to students.  Classroom teachers have also been providing extra help whenever possible.”

Both Scott and Burke expressed admiration for the teachers and how they handled the newness and pressures of virtual teaching.

And teacher Bates has praise for newcomer families, too. 

“Newcomer and refugee families are often incredibly resilient and hardworking,” she said. 

“Given time, understanding, and support, they will reach their goals.  My main message to my students is that they will spend their life learning many new things, and that life is long.”


In Their Own Words


Sidra is a 16-year-old Kurdish girl who came to Canada five years ago from Syria with her two parents, three sisters and two brothers. She speaks Kurdish and Arabic. Her entire high school experience has been spent with COVID. She is in Grade 10 at St. Peter Catholic Secondary School in Peterborough.

I didn’t experience what I was supposed to experience in Grade 9 and 10.

Sidra Abdullah

Obviously, I prefer in-person learning. Everyone I know prefers in-person. Online is just really hard, especially for us speaking English as our third language. Not only that, screen time takes up the whole time, not just school time. You also have homework, right? So after school you also stay on technology doing your homework, and I don’t get to see any of my friends. I don’t have close people to ask them for help. My parents aren’t able to help me because they don’t speak English all that well. So I have to do it all by myself. 

Also, a lot of time people don’t have internet, not only newcomers but also my other friends too. You get into zoom, you get out because of the internet issue and WIFI problems, so you don’t understand anything the teacher is saying. 

English is pretty fine because you usually write your essays online even in person but math and science is especially hard. In person you do a lot of labs in science, for example. It’s really easy because you get to see examples of what you’re supposed to do. But online it’s just the teacher talking all the time and then, after, giving you homework and questions to answer or an assignment is due. Those are hard subjects, for example, math is just horrible. Science has a lot of hard words, so if you don’t know a lot of English it’s just hard to understand those words, especially if you don’t have a teacher to explain right away. 

Of course, because newcomers don’t have the technology at home or wifi or a lot of things like space, their own room, it’s not quiet enough for them. Personally I struggled before but now I have my chrome book from the school because I don’t own one, the same as a lot of friends. Not everyone owns a chrome book or a computer.” 



Sami, 17, is a newcomer from Lebanon and attends Peterborough’s Adam Scott Collegiate Vocational Institute in Grade 11. He lives with his parents, an older brother, older sister, and younger brother. He shares positive and negative views of on-line learning.

Sami Elmoussa

For me, it’s not that hard because you have some features that you can’t do at school. During Covid, they are really strict with rules, you have to mask, sanitize, everything. Here at home you can relax.

There was a lot of screen time. When you  are in person at school and you don’t understand the lesson, you can just go to the teacher and say can you explain this to me, but online you have to wait for each other to be in the meeting together and answer each other’s questions.

Or they give you a time, so they say I am available from this time to this time. Other than that you have to wait until tomorrow. 

You have to handle a lot. You have to remember schedules and each teacher uses different apps to meet. Teachers use zoom and other teachers use google meet. To be honest, I had to take a course to use all these applications and that wasn’t easy.

I have a younger brother who is really energetic and he needs to waste his energy. He does that by moving a lot and the worst thing is my room is under his room, exactly under. So with everything he is doing, it feels like he’s doing it right beside me. 

I can handle most of the work online. The chances of me not understanding the lesson is very low and I have my own ways of keeping on track and trying to understand it and if that doesn’t go well, I go and ask the teacher.

I was really having trouble with Functions, and I was about to drop it before a hard test. Then I went and talked to a teacher that I really liked, and she said, don’t drop it, don’t give up. If you do, it will be even worse. It will be easier in the future. I actually listened to her and I didn’t give up and I’m increasing at the moment with Functions, so that’s my thing, don’t give up even outside of school. The things you do outside school, just keep trying, you will probably succeed.

By Melodie McCullough
Disclosure: Erinn Burke is the author’s daughter.

Categories: Uncategorized

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