There’s no doubt in Mustafa Khan’s mind which of the last two school years has been better for him.
“I’m in Grade 10. I’ve been in high school for two years, but I’ve really only actually been in it for one,” he said. “I was not very responsive to (online learning). I absolutely hated it … I thrive on person, like seeing how people interact with each other, just benefits my knowledge.”
The Toronto high schooler was describing something many teachers, parents and students have pointed out over the course of the pandemic: That the jolt to sudden online learning left them behind academically and socially.
It’s as though they missed a year of schooling. Teens now finishing Grade 11 have not yet had an uninterrupted year of high school.
But ask Khan whether he would want to follow a proposed solution by the Ontario Liberals and opt into a Grade 13 to make up for the lost time, and he’s a lot less sure.
He said it would feel like dragging high school out longer than it needed to go, and that even though students like him may feel they fell behind from the pandemic, it would only be enticing with enhanced course offerings that could help prepare him for university.
The opinions of Khan and his classmates on the idea matter. The proposal for Grade 13, raised by Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca in a campaign event this week, would be opt-in — a $295-million provincially-funded plan to give students the option of coming back to high school for a fifth year of study.
High schoolers do already have an option for a fifth year of high school, which is often called a “victory lap” or “super senior year,” but the cost of the schooling falls to school boards.
The return of Grade 13 would be a major change in Ontario’s education system.
After years of debate, Ontario ended a fifth year of high school in 2003 because it was the only North American jurisdiction still offering it.
The previous PC governments of Mike Harris and Ernie Eves from 1995 to 2003 that made the decision — which had been recommended to the preceding NDP government of Bob Rae by the Royal Commission on Learning.
Bringing back Grade 13, including a suite of new courses in finance and civics, would take time and would likely not be ready by next fall, Del Duca said when announcing the promise ahead of the June 2 vote.
The pledge would also mean hiring enough teachers to support more students at school for a longer period of time, and additional subject offerings.
But whether such a program will have value will ultimately be decided by the students.
Aida Chaudhry, another Grade 10 student in Toronto, said she’d take a hard pass on Grade 13 — unless there was an option to take a Bachelor’s degree in fewer years.
She’s just glad to be back in school in person, and thinks her academics and school spirit are already improving without the need for an extra year.
“My studies were so bad online. I used to get distracted by my phone so much,” she said.
It showed in her grades too: “Now I’m getting mid nineties, last year it was like seventies.”
But some students have long been drawn to the idea of an extra year of high school.
Austin McLaughlin is one of those students. He said he was thinking of taking a victory lap anyways — regardless of COVID-19, and talk of returning Grade 13.
“I would take it because having another year to space out your courses, it would help a lot going into university,” he said. “I was already trying to do it before because I wanted another year in high school just to, you know, be on the sports teams and have fun.”
What students seem to agree on is that it’s good to have a choice.
Grade 11 student Nicholas Giannantonio said he likes the idea of Grade 13 even if he wouldn’t do it himself.
“I wouldn’t need to because I think I’m like caught up on all my course and everything. But for somebody who is a little behind or wants to do something in the future and didn’t take the specific courses they needed, then Grade 13 would be good,” he said.
With files from Rob Ferguson