Getting Lost Students Back to School Post-Pandemic

empty classroom

Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Feb 6, 2024

by Katherine Martinko

Millions of children worldwide have not returned to school since the Covid-19 pandemic. In the United States, that number is estimated to be around 250,000, and it is in the tens of thousands in Canada.

Elizabeth Galvin is the Toronto-based director of Project Youth Energy, a Canadian organization that is trying to find these “lost” kids and help them get back on an academic path. She spoke to Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, in a video and podcast interview.

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today has a background in business. Elizabeth Galvin is also the executive director of Project youth energy. The initiative help students who have been severely disrupted by school closures during the global pandemic, to the point that the students have abandoned school altogether. Elizabeth is also a mother of two. And she joins us today from Toronto. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Thanks for having us, Lynn.
First of all, Elizabeth, let’s start with what exactly is project youth energy.
Project youth energy, we are working with young people roughly aged 15 to 25, who have fallen off their academic track due to school and work closures past few years, and who are now struggling to get back on on that path and back on track.
Do we know roughly how many students we’re talking about in Ontario or Canada, or even globally for that matter?
It’s hard to know an exact number until boards of education do a very deep dive and compare notes Exactly. But we estimate the institute behind the initiative estimates 10s of 1000s of kids across Canada and millions around the world. So what we’re doing is we connect these young people with mentors, trainers, educators, business partners, to give them direction and focus again, and to help them level up their academic and job skills. So they can look forward to a successful and prosperous future.
If you take us through what that looks like in terms of the logistics of that.
Yeah, so we take, we do an assessment when we first meet the students obviously, and see wherever they left off, and then take it from there. It’s a very bespoke service, every youth is different, their needs are all different, their goals are all different. So we will, as they say, do an assessment with them, see where they need to pick up where they left off, and then connect them with the right mentors and trainers are educators and business people. We help them work on their resumes so that they can look for part time jobs, or even volunteer work that will help to support the learning that they’re doing and their goals going forward. And as I say, it’s different for every youth, which is sort of what’s nice and unique about it.
But how did you become involved specifically with Project youth energy.
I heard Irvin Studin speak student speaking at a conference that I was at, he was speaking about the effects of school closures on young people. And I approached him afterwards. And he’s the president of the Institute of 21st century questions, a leading Canadian Think Tank, who has been working on this since the pandemic closures began with people from around the world, 60 different countries helped on this commission. And project youth energy is the culmination of that and his brainchild, and he gave me the opportunity to be involved with it. So it’s exciting.
Elizabeth, I wonder if you could take us through some of the reasons why some of these students fell off academically, once the school buildings were physically closed as a result of the global pandemic.
So a lot of kids when they had to adjust to online learning, a lot of kids, a lot of people had a tough time with that. So there’s some kids that it just didn’t work for them, especially those that were in programs that require hands on learning, you know, people that were in culinary schools and doing mechanic work of construction, the trades, the skilled trades, that sort of thing. There was also kids who came from may have come from abusive homes, that once they got stuck at home, that situation became worse. There were some kids who didn’t have the right technology to be able to do the online learning. Some kids maybe they might not have parents who can speak the language that the school was being taught and so it was hard for them to help them and they would have had a tough time getting support from teachers and counselors at school that normally if they were in school, they would have easy read ready access to children with learning disabilities, I know that my autistic kids in particular had the toughest they they suffered a lot. Online learning was was not easy for them. And also, it was very easy for kids to check out of whether it was high school or college or university. All they had to do was click a button and they were out. And no, it’s not like they were harder to find it. It was hard. Everybody was adjusting everything was so tumultuous at the beginning, it was hard to find those kids. So there’s many reasons why kids fell off track. And then after such prolonged closures, I think that’s where it really affected a lot of kids ability to, to bounce back and get back and know where to go.
So now when did you personally become aware of this scale of the issue that we’re talking about here, which is School, which is kids not returning to school at all, as a result of the school closures
in January, or February of 2021. So the schools closed down in March 2020. We all know what happened there. And there was the summer then in September, when the kids went back, it was still just virtual learning. There was no in person classes that went on for months and months. And I saw a study come out of McMaster University that reported what was happening, they reported the numbers there was 300% increase in suicides and suicide ideation among young people. There was a 200% increase in sorry, a 90% increase in eating disorder, eating disorders, people, young people being admitted for eating disorders. There was an 80% Jump in opioid related overdose deaths in Ontario. And this was shocking, and I guess, not surprising. I think we were all suffering. We all found it so hard, all these closures, but to see the actual numbers coming out of McMasters Child and Youth research team was pretty shocking. So and I could see it in my own family I you could see it, you could see it with your colleagues and your friends how hard it was on everybody and adults are a little more resilient. They’re a little more mature. But kids, they just didn’t have that maturity. They didn’t have that experience. So those numbers were really disturbing.
Why was it important for you to be personally involved with Project youth energy?
Well, in January 2022, so this would have been two years after the pandemic started and the closures were prolonged, ongoing, off and on. But in January 2022, I lost my daughter to suicide. She was a second year student at the University of Guelph. And at that time, if you remember January 2022, the Ontario government had plunged us into a another lockdown closures. So schools were closed again. Post Secondary students were kicked off campuses, even though they weren’t vaccinated. And they were isolated. Again, sorry. They were isolated and not in class. And in her particular case, the University of Guelph even called a snow day, that day, even though they were learning virtually, and that was the day. So she didn’t even have any virtual classes that day. The week before my daughter passed away, another second year, University of Guelph students also took her own life. And in the same week, another 20 year old in Mississauga, who was not in school, but she was planning to go back to school when things got back to normal as she put it. And she ended her life as well. So these were the worst examples of what can happen when schools are closed, and we take that away from young people. So that’s why I became personally involved because I like to help these kids and make sure that they get educated. So the long term effects of having such a large cohort of young people who are uneducated or undereducated, It will see those effects on our workforce and our health care system, mental health care system, our social programs and their own families the next generation. So we need to, and we are we’re pulling them back into the system. And we’re getting them to level up their education and their work skills and get them back on track so they can have a successful future. It’s good for everybody.
Elizabeth, firstly, we are sorry for your loss. And thank you for sharing that story with us. Can you take us through some of the successes of project youth energy that you have experienced so far? Yeah. So
I’m working with one young woman who fell off track in high school. And so has been out of school for two years and didn’t really know where to start to get back. So I helped her to navigate through the continuing education system in her school board. We did all the paperwork, we needed to assess how many credits she still needed. She wrote a couple tests, and now she is one credit away from getting her high school diploma. And we’ve been researching different college programs for what she’s interested in, we’ve gone to a couple of tours of college campuses. So she’s excited, I’m excited about what’s what’s to come. So so that’s good. Another student, he was a second year university, computer engineering student at University. And he dropped out, he was one of that cohort that started when everything was just locked down, shut down, shut up, nothing going on, you know, no clubs, no nothing. And she just found after a year and a half of ongoing on again off again, closures and not being able to really connect with too many people at school, which many kids had the problem of, he just dropped out. And so we’ve brought him into the program, I introduced him to connected him with a mentor who’s also an engineer. And they meet for half an hour each week, he’s working on this project, he had an idea for a project. And this engineer is helping him to realize that project, and he’s getting pretty excited about it. And he’s getting excited about going back to school, he wants to finish that degree and get it done. Because he knows what he can do. Now he’s, he’s he’s gained that confidence back. So that’s pretty exciting to see. Yeah.
As you meet these young people and learn about their stories, I wonder if you’re seeing any trends in terms of, you know, what brought them to you in the first place? And how you through Project energy are able to help them through collaborative efforts, as we’ve described with mentors, etc. are there any commonalities that you’re seeing?
Right, I guess one commonality, I could say is that these kids have had a long period of time with a lack of guidance. And they don’t know where to look for the information. So as we go through with them, and we show them, we share our knowledge and our skills of navigating through institutions, like school boards, and colleges and universities and connecting them with people who are working in those fields, and they talk to them. They a light bulb goes on in there. And they say, Oh, I didn’t know that. And now I see. So we’re teaching them how to what’s that saying you teach a person to do you give a person a fish and they then they eat for one night, you teach them how to fish, and they eat for a lifetime. It’s sort of like that. We’re teaching them how to be resourceful how to be resilient, and we’re, we’re helping them with skills that they would have otherwise learned in decent jobs. That was the other thing that they lost out on were jobs that weren’t just fast food or retail jobs, jobs that really would have taught them about working in an office and working as part of a team and things like that. So we’re trying to give them opportunities that will teach them those really crucial work skills going forward. And I think the nicest thing I noticed is when they talk to a mentor, and they get all this information from them that they didn’t know and sometimes when I’m sitting in on the meetings with mentors, I didn’t know it either. So just seeing these mentors share their knowledge and experience and skills and it’s so helpful for these kids. It really goes a long way. Yeah,
now speaking about those mentors and the companies that you’re working with, to help these students, can you take us through what that looks like in terms of what their feedback has been, what the response to the outreach to them has been, with respect to their participation in this initiative.
I’ll give you an example of one mentor. I mean, there’s been several but one comes to mind where we were we work with a young woman who wants to be she wants to open up her own hair salon. So we found a mentor of almost retired hairdressers. So he’s been in the business for a million years, he said, every kind of ownership of hairdressing salon that you can think of from sole proprietorship to having you know, 10 chairs and his and him overseeing them all. And that sort of thing. And he has done some teaching. So he had a long meeting with her and talked about what her business would look like. So that was really super helpful for her and it. Like all of them, we’re trying to show these kids, you’re here, you want to get there, here’s the steps you need to take to get there. We did a couple tours of some schools that teach these courses, and we’ve been able to compare what they offer and their costs. Now she has a better idea of what it’s going to look like what her salon is going to look like. And now she can make better choices going forward to choosing the program that she wants to take. So again, it is sort of Oh, and then sorry, I found, we found another hair dresser who needed a little bit of help. So she can job shadow her and actually work in the field meeting clients seeing what this hairdresser does, who’s experienced and how she deals with clients and how she organizes her day just you know, working in the field, instead of just take going to school, taking a training course and then coming up with it herself and learning by trial and error. She’s she’s hearing from people in that business. And I think that’s been so so helpful for her it totally, it’s been so helpful for Yeah, so that’s been good.
What are some of the challenges with respect to project youth energy that you face so far? Understanding that it is still a fairly young and new initiative? Yeah,
probably the biggest challenge is to find these kids who don’t want to be found, you know, we’re adults and wherever adults are, these kids don’t want to be. So it’s that age old problem of trying to find 50 and connect with 15 to 25 year olds, where they are. So we do a lot of community outreach to other organizations that are working with youth in the community. And we’ve had lots of referrals from them. And we’ve been able to help them in different ways that some of their programs might not be, where they’re what they’re working on. So it’s a really nice partnerships are with other community organizations. And you know, we’re working together to fill any gaps that they might have. And there’s a lot of community organizations that are working with youth right now. They’ve got a lot of files on their desks. And so we’re another tool in their toolbox to help these kids. There’s a lot of people out there trying to, you know, help, and we are, we’re, we’re helping to, as best we can. But it’s our challenge is to find them. Of course, like all of the youth places, it’s hard to find, get them engaged.
Elizabeth, I wonder if you could sort of paint a picture for us with respect to where project youth energy would like to go both in the short term, as well as the longer term with, you know, scaling up this initiative.
Well, we would like to where do you continue to grow and expand outward from the GTA we are getting calls from Ottawa, we are getting calls from up north. So we are expanding our network and our services and the youth that we service. Actually, I have another one young man who’s in BC, which we were able to help them and connect them with a mentor. I won’t give you the long story about that. But that was that was pretty great. That’s been helping. So we’re just gonna continue to do what we do. Outreach and doing ours Social media to reach out to people and doing interviews like this. So thank you very much, because that really helps to get the word out. And we want to tell parents and young people that there’s a lot of people in this boat that have been disrupted in the last three years, and there’s help out there. And we want people to really know that there’s no, it wasn’t necessarily their fault, it was the situation that happened. And that, but there’s coming back there is coming back from this, we just, we can give them the energy to do that. So if parents want to contact us, our website is project youth Or they can call me directly 905-580-7821. We’re always looking for mentors to share their knowledge and experience with young people. So if anyone wants to get involved that way, that’s fantastic. We’d love to hear from them. And for business owners, and hiring managers out there, if you are looking for some bright young people, for job shadow opportunities, or work placements, or summer jobs, they take paying jobs too, they like those, please contact us because we’ve got a good group of really bright kids that just need that little bit of experience, you know, under their belt. So what
would you say to parents or educators who may watch or listen to this interview, who may know of kids who are in this category, about how these individuals could encourage these students to maybe seek help? Because, you know, part of the issue, I’m assuming, is getting these students to even acknowledge that they might need support? Is there anything that you can offer in terms of parents who might have children in this category, or teachers who might know of students who have not returned to school and could use the support that project these energies providing? Yeah, just
call me call us and reach out to us we’ll have a conversation and and see what we can do. I’m sure we can help in many, many ways. And we’ll tailor a program to that person and their needs and just call us and we’ll have a conversation that’s fairly low key, it’s not like it’s a 12 page, you know, application may have to fill out it’s nothing like that. It’s it’s a conversation and then we go from there
was with what would you say are some of the key lessons that have been learned as a result of the school closures necessitated by COVID-19?
I think the main lesson that we, I hope we have learned is that we can never close the schools, again, the evidence is in, we’ve seen the results, and it’s catastrophic. The impacts on our young people, our society were far too great. And it wasn’t worth closing the schools, we just we just can’t do it. Again, we have to keep schools open, no matter what.
If you were to paint a picture, in terms of the long term impact, you alluded to some of the impacts earlier, but if you were to paint a sharper picture of what will happen if these school children are not able to finish school or do not return to school, what would that look like?
Well, education is key for a good life. And the higher education you have the studies have shown, the higher your income can be. So if you’re uneducated, you’re going to have, it’s going to be a tough life, it’s going to be pretty hard, it’s gonna be an uphill climb. And so getting an education is just so key, especially finishing high school, getting some experience in a field, and then take it from there. All our kids that we’re working with are going to be going to get college or university. So that’s where we hopeful. And as a society as a country, I think we have to think about our workforce and our society in the future. And we don’t want our kids to fall behind what country would so we need to look at that in terms of education and helping to try and find these these kids and make sure that we’ve got them all back on track.
Elizabeth, what would you say gives you hope as you are involved with this project, your own lived experience as you meet young people, and you learn more about the size And the scope and the scale of the challenge before you and your team, what would you say gives you hope.
Just seeing these kids come out of their shell a little bit and have after a few conversations with them, just to see them get some energy back and start thinking towards the future. And I can see when the light bulb goes off with most of them and they go, I can do this, you know, after so long of just being low energy and down debt, like we all were, you know, when we were all shut up for so long. When you lie on the couch for a long time. You just feel like lying on the couch, you know? So what gives me hope is to see these kids saying, okay, I can do this, I can move forward, and it’s a good motivator.
So we wish you and your team all the best with this endeavor.
Thank you so much, Lianne. Really appreciate you having us. Thank
you for joining us.

Online learning was catastrophic for kids, Galvin explains. It ruined opportunities for kids involved in more manual lines of study and work, like culinary school or mechanics. Some kids lacked access to technology or didn’t have parents who spoke the school’s language and were unable to help.

Kids in abusive homes often experienced worsening treatment, and those with learning disabilities were left unsupported. In many cases, it was just too easy to check out; all they had to do was click a button to leave class and no one could force them back. 

Galvin says she became aware of the issues when MacMaster University reported numbers reflecting the lockdowns’ devastation—a 300% increase in suicide and suicide ideation, 90% increase in eating disorders, 80% increase in opioid-related overdose deaths. When her own daughter, a second-year student at the University of Guelph, committed suicide in January 2022, the problem became deeply personal. 

“That’s why I became involved—because I want to help these kids. The long-term effects of having such a large cohort of young people who are uneducated or undereducated will have [a lasting effect] on our workforce and health care system, mental health care system, social programs, and their own families [in] the next generation. We need to pull them back into the system. We’re getting them to level up their education and their work skills and get them back on track so they can have a successful future. It’s good for everybody.”

masked male student in empty classroom

Project Youth Energy locates these young people, usually between the ages of 15 and 21, with the help of parents, educators, and other organizations that are already working with youth. As Galvin says, “They’ve got a lot of files on their desks, so we’re another tool in their toolbox to help these kids.” A plan is tailored to each individual, and then young people are matched with mentors and business partners who will help them complete their high school diplomas or apply to college or university or get relevant work experience. 

So far, the project has been successful and plans to expand beyond the Greater Toronto Area.

Galvin encourages parents and teachers to connect if they are worried about any student. “Reach out to us! We’ll have a conversation and see what we can do. I’m sure we can help in many, many ways.”

tablet and books in empty classroom

As for lessons learned from the pandemic shutdowns, Galvin tells Castelino, “I hope we have learned that we can never close schools again… The impacts on our young people [and] our society were far too great, and it wasn’t worth closing the schools. We just can’t do it again. We have to keep schools open, no matter what.” 

Related stories:

Impact of the Pandemic on Education in Canada

Related links:

Project Youth Energy



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