Quebec Education Ministry fumbled remote learning, auditor general finds

Quebec’s Education Ministry lacks data about the true scale of the pandemic’s effect on learning setbacks, the province’s auditor general, Guylaine Leclerc, has found.

The auditor’s report, presented to the National Assembly on Wednesday, identified shortfalls by the Education Ministry during the pandemic, including overspending on videoconferencing equipment, inadequately supporting school service centers and failing to invest in tutoring and other help for students.

Leclerc said these shortfalls contributed to a learning environment that left many students, particularly those with learning disabilities or who were in danger of dropping out of school, behind.

“These setbacks, if they are not addressed by effective make-up activities, risk compromising the academic progress of these students,” she said.

When schools closed on March 13, 2020, the ministry was slow to issue clear directives to service centers to tell them the minimum amount of teaching they should be providing. This lack of direction left many students listless and abandoned, the auditor general found.

The ministry waited nearly two months before issuing a clear directive to resume classes. In that time, students received different quality of teaching depending on what the school service center was in charge of their school.

This was a pattern. Leclerc found that the ministry continued to be slow to respond to the needs of school service centers throughout the pandemic.

Initially, more than half of the 72 service centers in Quebec lacked sufficient computers for remote learning. One year later, 10 service centers still didn’t have enough.

The ministry was also inefficient when responding to schools’ needs. Leclerc found that the ministry bought $42 million worth of videoconferencing equipment and by July 2022, only half of the equipment was being used.

The “challenging” learning environment affected every student in Quebec, Leclerc said, but the full extent of the students’ setbacks remains unclear, in part because the ministry canceled its standardized exams during the 2021-22 academic year.

“It’s important for the Education Ministry to know the effect of the pandemic and remote learning on Quebec students,” she said.

The lack of data left the ministry blind when it was investing in tutoring and support services. Rather than target those services to the regions that need them the most, resources are distributed evenly across the province.

“It would have been important to deliver that support to the regions and service centers that needed it more,” Leclerc said.

Bernard Drainville, who was appointed education minister in October, said he respected the auditor general’s report but wanted to take the time to verify its findings.

“I want to ask my civil servants and in particular the service center workers what, exactly, is going on,” he said. “Do we have computers that are lying somewhere that we can (give to students)?”

He said the ministry is currently asking service centers for data to get a better understanding of how Quebec students are faring. Some service centers, he added, are unable to provide the ministry with good data.

The president of the Centrale des syndicats du Qu├ębec, which represents 125,000 unionized education workers, said in a statement that the auditor general’s report contained no surprises.

“The auditor general confirms all of the inconsistencies that we repeatedly pointed out to the ministry during the pandemic,” Eric Gingras said. “How many times have we asked them to provide a clear and consistent plan for all institutions in the system to avoid inequities?”

Leclerc recommended the Education Ministry review the decisions made during the pandemic to improve in case of future disruptive events and to do an analysis to “obtain a complete picture of learning delays and ensure follow-up.”

“We’re not at all saying (the learning delays) are irreversible,” said Alain Fortin, the director general who oversees audits at the auditor general’s office.

“What we’re recommending is to have a good picture of what’s going on. Some (students) might be (struggling) in French, and even in French, for some, it might be reading, for some, it might be writing. We need to know where they are, those delays and find the best way to put in place measures to make up those delays.”