Eleven-year-old Sylvia was only in grade two when the world she knew was upended.

In March 2020, COVID-19 shut down Sylvia’s school, forcing her apart from her classmates and in front of a screen for over a year.

And today, Sylvia and her peers are still paying the price.

It’s a situation that worries Rachel, a third-year education student who’s seen how the pandemic triggered devastating impacts on academic achievement and deepened learning inequalities.

“I was in a grade five/six classroom [for my practicum], and pretty much every single kid there was at a grade four level,” she explained. “So, they’re a couple of grades behind where they should be.”

That’s why Rachel was thrilled to see nearly 600 youth like Sylvia return for another summer with the Community School Investigators (CSI) Summer Learning Program.

Every summer, the five-week program offers engaging education, recreational, and cultural activities to kids ages 6-12 so they stay on pace with learning during July and August.

It’s facilitated by BGC Winnipeg in partnership with Winnipeg School Division and funded with the help of generous United Way Winnipeg donors.

“It’s so easy to regress in the summer—and that’s why CSI is so important,” explained Rachel, who has worked with the program for six years.

For Sylvia, who attended CSI at Lord Selkirk School, the opportunity to keep up with learning over the summer has been a game-changer over the past four years.

“I forget a lot sometimes,” said Sylvia, now in grade 6. “And grade 5 was difficult to understand.”

Far before “summer learning loss” hit headline after headline during the pandemic, BGC Winnipeg and local teachers were concerned about children’s slide in knowledge from June to September, reversing some of the progress students made over the last year.

Educators noticed that in the fall, they were re-teaching many of the same concepts they’d taught the previous year as kids were falling behind.

“It’s almost just like you’re constantly playing a game of catch up where you’re never really going to catch up,” explained Rachel. “It’s just this endless cycle, right?”

How much of a problem is the summer “brain drain,” exactly? One study says over the summer months kids can lose up to 40% of the progress they made during the school year.

So, nearly 20 years ago, CSI was born to help prevent the summer slide and set young Winnipeggers up for a lifetime of success.

Every spring, CSI instructors meet with Winnipeg teachers to understand the needs and challenges of students.

Then, they spend the summer solidifying and enriching the previous year’s curriculum through literacy and numeracy activities, science experiments, arts and crafts, reading circles, outdoor adventures, and more.

Rachel noted the program is especially valuable for kids living in poverty, who are disproportionately impacted by summer learning loss. Affording resources like out-of-school educational experiences can feel impossible—and as the cost of living rises, so do program fees.

That’s why CSI is based in 14 inner-city schools and is completely free, so no child is excluded.

Families feel relieved knowing nutritious breakfasts, lunches, and snacks are provided every day so their kids can focus better, learn deeply, and participate more.

For Sylvia—as much as she appreciates refreshing her knowledge and participating in interactive activities like building challenges—the food is her favourite.

“We’ve had chili, quesadillas, egg wraps . . .” she listed. “All the meals are good.”

When it comes to the fallout of the pandemic, academic interruptions were only the tip of the iceberg.

Rachel has witnessed how suspending in-person interactions among youth disrupted social-emotional learning—an equally important skill.

“I’m really noticing an increase in [challenges with] emotional regulation,” explained Rachel.

“Things like collaborating with classmates, communicating, patience with waiting in line—because they haven’t been in that practice for so long.”

In the wake of the pandemic, Rachel believes the relational aspect of CSI has become even more vital—particularly for kids around Sylvia’s age, who lost momentum during their first few critical elementary school years.

“Making new friends is a slower process now,” shared Rachel. “It’s almost like kids have their guard up from those years where there was a lack of socialization and needing to stay six feet apart.”

That’s certainly felt true for Sylvia.

Like so many other “COVID kids,” Sylvia struggled to make friends at the start of CSI this past summer. She felt worried she wouldn’t fit in and spent most of her time hanging out with someone she already knew—her older cousin.

But by the time CSI wrapped up only a few weeks later, Sylvia had courageously come out of her shell and formed a new circle of friends.

“We laugh so much together,” she smiled.

Sylvia’s CSI instructor, Shane, who is finishing his final year as a Bachelor of Education student, proudly watch her grow into a social butterfly and a leader over the summer.

“Any time we’re doing any group projects, she has no issue with who’s in her group,” said Shane. “She’s very inclusive.”

Like so many girls entering their teenage years, Sylvia has her days when she feels uncertain and her confidence is low.

After all, it’s hard navigating the world and all its pressures at such an impressionable age. And if there isn’t enough support at home, reckoning with big feelings like anxiety and loneliness can be overwhelming.

These days, young girls are battling their sense of worthiness and mental health more than ever. A recent Canadian study shows suicide rates among girls ages 10-14 is surging—about twice the rate for boys.

But for Sylvia, being surrounded by encouraging instructors who remind her she’s a smart, talented, loveable person makes an enormous difference.

“Sylvia is great because she’s a leader in a room full of a lot of kids that have a lot of energy,” said her instructor, Shane. “She’s somehow able to get everyone on the same page once she feels confident enough to do so.”

He added, “And she’s a very talented artist.”

Creative projects like drawing and taking photos are some of Sylvia’s favourite pastimes, and CSI was a channel for her to further explore those passions.

As a fitness and sports enthusiast, she also loved the recreational activities CSI hosted every afternoon.

“I’ve gotten a lot stronger,” she reflected.

Though she means “physically stronger,” Rachel is quick to point out how much Sylvia has grown emotionally, mentally, and relationally. And to Rachel, thriving as a whole person is what CSI is all about.

“It’s being in a classroom environment and having the chance to be with staff and people that really care,” said Rachel.

“It’s a safe place and it’s a loving place.”