These students say virtual learning makes the transition to high school, university much harder

From disrupted exams to learning new studying habits, many students say they have lacked consistency with school since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. For some, the transitional years — moving from Grade 8 to high school or Grade 12 to post-secondary — already brings the fear of the unknown.

Canadian students share thoughts and feelings about school transitions amidst pandemic education

Some young learners are struggling to build early reading skills while others stumble over math concepts. Repeated pandemic pivots have left students out of practice with classroom learning, impacted their mental health and distanced them from peers. The CBC News series Learning Curve explores the ramifications of COVID-19 for Canadian students and what they'll need to recover from pandemic-disrupted schooling.

From disrupted exams to learning new studying habits, many students say they have lacked any sort of consistency with school since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For some, the transitional years — the move from Grade 8 to high school or Grade 12 to post-secondary studies — already brings the fear of the unknown. So CBC News spoke to some of those students about how the educational changes brought on by the pandemic have shaped and shifted these milestone years.

Ava Pietrantonio, 13 (Woodbridge, Ont.)

For eighth grader Ava Pietrantonio, nerves are on the rise.

"I've heard that so many people in Grade 7 learned things that I didn't," she said. "I'm kind of worried that … if I learn it in Grade 9, I'm going to be kind of stuck."

Typically, Pietrantonio would learn simultaneously with her classmates at Pine Grove Public School in Woodbridge Ont., but when the school switched to online learning in 2020 and 2021, each student was placed in a virtual elementary school.

This meant her classes included new teachers and other unfamiliar faces from across the school board.

"They just gave you Google documents, slides and Google sheets to work on. So you're not actually getting a lesson book or questions to answer," said Pietrantonio.

"I felt like I fell behind."

It wasn't until this year that teachers began preparing students for tasks like studying for exams, she said, providing her with a bit of relief heading into high school this fall.

  • Do you have a question about how kids are recovering from pandemic-disrupted learning? Do you have an experience you want to share or some ideas that could help get kids back on track at school? Send an email to

Makayla McIntosh, 14 (Brampton, Ont.)

Makayla McIntosh describes her pandemic learning experience as similar to being on a roller-coaster.

"It was fun in the beginning, and then it slowly got more miserable," said the Grade 8 student.

She highlights math as a particularly difficult subject to learn online, saying it was challenging to get one-on-one time with her teacher if she was struggling.

"It's not like you could raise your hand and they could come over to you," she said.

Heading off to high school in the fall, Makayla says she feels ready for the workload but is concerned about the learning material.

"I'd say that I'm worried about not being able to do work to my standard, because my standard is a lot higher for myself than, like, other people have for me," she said. "I'm worried of letting myself and my parents down."

But this year did offer the chance to get closer with some of her peers. Being in a tight-knit class of only 11 students, she would often turn to her classmates for help during lunch or other breaks.

"We'd help each other," she said. "It was nice to get one-on-one time with my friends who understood things, because they knew where I was coming from."

Ishaal Ali, 14 (Ottawa)

When Grade 9 student Ishaal Ali switched to remote learning, she says she noticed she was struggling to keep up with new technologies.

With very little support virtually, she felt her grades eventually suffered.

"Being online for such a long time, it was hard to focus," she said. "It shortened my attention span a little."

She found she spent almost the whole day online, first for school and then for a few more hours to do homework and study.

On top of transitioning to high school during the pandemic, Ali was moving to a different school board to attend a literary arts program. She said the jump was a daunting experience.

However, she says her Grade 9 literary arts teacher has helped ease the adjustment. Each day, the class is asked to write down everything on their mind in hopes of improving focus and lessening distractions.

Logan Curle, 17 (Regina)

Logan Curle says he hasn't had a "normal" year since Grade 9.

"I've just been playing catch-up ever since," the Grade 12 student said. "Grade 12 just kind of threw me for another loop trying to get back into the groove of things."

Curle said he and his peers worry that university exams will be a challenge. During those two pandemic years, many of his high school exams were optional or got cancelled.

"Which seemed good at the time … but it probably didn't prepare me as much as it would have if I had a normal year."

Despite the learning gaps, Curle said he feels ready to move on to post-graduate studies.

"We learned how to do things a little bit faster and how to do things on our own instead of having teachers show us," he said, noting independence is a newfound skill.

Prabpal Bhullar, 18 (Vancouver)

Prabpal Bhullar, a Grade 12 student at WJ Mouat Secondary, says that learning a sense of accountability has been a positive takeaway from his pandemic schooling.

"When we went virtual, the whole idea of independence was … stressed upon," he said.

He said the remote learning experience encouraged him to take charge of his own schedule.

"I feel like it was kind of a predecessor," said Bhullar. "In a way, it made me feel ready for the next step."

From setting proper alarms to blocking out time for studying, he credits the pandemic for his heightened sense of responsibility as he transitions to post-secondary education.

With prom on the way, Bhullar said he's thrilled that despite the challenges they faced, Grade 12 students will have the chance to celebrate their resilience in person.

Victoria Dmitruczyk, 19 (Hamilton, Ont.)

For 19-year-old Victoria Dmitruczyk, transitioning from high school to McMaster University was jarring.

"You had this one-and-a-half year learning gap and then all of a sudden you're in university," she said.

Due to the pandemic, her first semester was entirely online.

By the time her cohort had to write the first in-person exam in 2022, it had been nearly three years since Dmitruczyk's last in-person assessment.

"I talked to some of my friends who were like, 'Yeah, we'll just learn it next semester,' because we have all this free time, but most people didn't end up doing that," she said.

If she had to give a piece of advice to a Grade 12 student to help ease their transition, she would urge them to stay focused and not overthink the learning gaps in place.

"Make the most out of it and actually stick to it," said Dmitruczyk. "At the end of the day, if you need to know this information for what you're planning to go into, you don't want to be struggling when you actually have to go and show your skills."

COVID-19 has affected the past three school years. How have your students fared amid pandemic schooling? What are you most worried about? Share your experiences and concerns with us at (Be sure to include your name and location. They may be featured on air on CBC News Network.)

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