Archive for the ‘Student Absenteeism/Attendance’ Category


The recent spike in child respiratory illnesses is worrisome and taking its toll on K-12 classrooms in most school districts. Classrooms with empty desks are easy to spot in December 2022 and a tell-tale sign that the ‘tridemic’ is adversely affecting students, teachers and families. It’s also an ominous sign that the worst may be yet to come, since January and February tend to be the peak months for seaonal flu outbreaks in Canada.  

Among the first to blow the whistle were Nova Scotia public school teachers. For two weeks or more in late November, classroom teachers were reporting record student absenteeism, ranging from 30 to 50 per cent of students in some schools. Newly-elected Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) president Ryan Lutes voiced public concerns but his plea fell on deaf ears.  

Teachers represented by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union finally took it to the N.S. Legislature’s Human Resources Committee on November 29 decrying rates of absenteeism, working conditions, and the lack of substitute teachers. Once again, Education Minister Becky Druhan remained silent, leaving senior education officials scrambling to explain it all away.  

High rates of student absenteeism are not uncommon during flu season, but this outbreak comes on top of two- and-a-half years of pandemic interrupted education. What’s shocking is that Nova Scotia’s Education Department remained in denial, suspended in some kind of never-never land. It took a media firestorm to attract their attention.

It’s now a serious matter, so where is the actual data and how does it figure in the larger issue of the long-term impact of the prolonged pandemic education crisis on the quality of education in our schools?  Someone, somewhere has to connect the dots.

Student absenteeism since the pandemic hit in March 2020 has set new records and severely tested existing provincial attendance guidelines. Current absentee rates far exceed the levels identified as a concern in September 2017 when the province posted its official “Student Attendance and Engagement Policy.”

Back then, missing 16 or more days a year was identified as “chronic absenteeism” and those who missed 25 per cent of class time were considered at academic risk. It’s fair to ask what proportion of students now miss 16 or more days of school and how many exceed the 25 per cent benchmark identified as being “linked to lower marks.”

The current spike in student illness and absenteeism is not an isolated phenomenon. In January and early February of 2022, the Omicron wave decimated class attendance, especially in Cape Breton. Again, in April 2022, The Chronicle Herald reported a major March 21 to 25 rash of absenteeism, ranging in the Halifax area from 12.2 per cent (P-6) to 18.1 (10-12), exceeding normal averages of less than 10 per cent of all students. 

            Our sister province, New Brunswick, has just released its October 2022 attendance data and the results are not pretty.  Students in that province are missing more school days than ever before since COVID-19 hit. The average N.B. student misses 16 or more school days a year and so most students, statistically speaking, now qualify as examples of “chronic absenteeism.”

            Outbreaks of student absenteeism because of illness are now visible elsewhere. The latest school district to report in is Ontario’s Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. Up to 20% of that district’s public school students were out with illness on certain days in November 2022 and many are reportedly “falling behind” in their studies.  That’s at least double the absenteeism rate in 2020 (five to 10 per cent). In high schools, absentee rates range from 8% to 14%, compared to 3% to 4 % two years ago. Staff absences for personal illness are also up, to nearly 16 days each, from 13 to 15 before the pandemic.

Students are staying home for lots of reasons. Since COVID-19 hit children and teens were encouraged to stay home if they had symptoms of the virus. Parents of immuno-compromised are essentially home-schooling their kids out of fear that contagion run rampant in local schools. Some students and many teachers are totally frustrated by the constant upheaval and questioning the value of attending classes, best with ongoing interruptions or full of empty desks.  

Education authorities and faculties of education have been, until recently, absent on the subject of absenteeism. Across Canada, from-province-to province, education authorities have been essentially flying blind because absenteeism is a neglected research field. A recent Canadian Journal of Education article (2021), written by University of Ottawa researcher Anton Birioukou, pointed out that “the lack of empirical knowledge” concerning student absenteeism was “a contributing factor to the high levels of absenteeism evident in Canada.”

It all brings to mind the old Japanese proverb of the three wise monkeys: “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”  In dire circumstances, it’s tempting to turn a blind eye to an entrenched problem.

American research on student absenteeism, much of it generated by Professor Christopher Kearney of the University of Nevada, is instructive and deserves more attention. He is the leading expert on what is known as “school refusal behaviour” exhibited by students who resist or skip school even when they are otherwise healthy.

Specialists in the field like Kearney have identified many, sometimes interrelated root causes. It starts with the student (i.e., boredom/ lack of interest or health issues); the home (familial neglect, lack of support for schooling); the school (poor school climate, unmet educational needs); and society (poverty and the need to supplement family income).

            While occasional absences are expected, especially among teens, regular and recurring absences exceeding three weeks of school time are detrimental to students’ learning, academic progress and social well-being. Yet there’s lots of evidence that since the great pandemic disruption high levels of absenteeism are being normalized in provincial school systems.

Pandemic school disruptions have significantly altered the educational context, largely as a result of massive and mostly unplanned experiments in emergency remote learning. Public faith in school attendance has been shaken. It’s likely that student “seat-time” and conventional grade promotion may not ultimately be the only basis for assessing levels of student engagement in learning.

            Rows of empty desks are impossible to ignore, but we would be unwise to embrace unproven alternatives. While “seat-time” may have its imperfections, alternatives need to pass the ‘sniff-test’ – and provide meaningful student accountability or credible means of assessing academic expectations, securing course credits, and acquiring diplomas.   If we are truly committed to ‘keeping kids in school’ in the post-pandemic era, then we had better make a concerted effort to reduce the numbers of empty desks in those schools.

Why were Canadian schools caught off-guard and so ill-prepared for the most recent surge in student absenteeism?  Why have our education researchers been so “absent on absenteeism” and what does it suggest about their priorities?  Have pre-COVID student attendance/absenteeism benchmarks been abandoned out of necessity?

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Climate change is becoming the biggest public policy issue — closer to home and in our junior and senior high schools.  A recent CBC News Nova Scotia series, Making the Grade which aired in February 2016, not only looked at the plight of classroom teachers, but ripped the lid off of growing teacher concerns about, and frustration over, the deterioration in academic tone and school climate. It also exposed the leading symptom of the malaise – chronic student absenteeism and “school refusal behaviour” in our high schools.

AbsenteeismEmptyDesksOne Nova Scotia teacher, Christine Emberley of the Bedford Education Centre, finally broke the silence.  Teachers have lost the ability to enforce deadlines while they are being told by school authorities to “teach real-world skills,” Ms. Emberley told CBC News, and that’s a big contradiction. Professional teachers and parent who recognize  deadline importance, she explained, are up against educators who insist, quite wrongly, that “consequences of any kind equals punishment.”  School should be the safe pace to make mistakes — like missing deadlines or skipping classes –and experience consequences.

Student absenteeism is a complex problem because it has multiple causes and is deeply embedded in a contemporary high school culture which can be almost consequence-free for so-called ‘floaters.’  A young woman taught by Ms. Emberley knew there was a problem when she arrived at high school.  “Pushed through with no effort –sometimes missing weeks at a time for behavioural incidents or because she just didn’t feel like going — she knew she lacked the foundational skills to succeed and the work ethic to catch up.” Giving students every opportunity to succeed, she concluded, does not mean “bypassing the lessons that teach work ethic so they can pass grade levels.”

Some 25 to 30 per cent of today’s student population are ‘turned-off’ and disengaged from schools. That was the principal finding of leading UNB social science researcher Dr. J. Douglas Willms in studies conducted five years ago. Interviewed in the Summer 2011 Ontario Education newsletter, in conversation, he pointed out that in a school of 500 students that meant that perhaps 125 teens were disengaged, frequently absent and drifting around the fringes of school life. If engaging the students is “not our job” as principals or teachers, Willms had the temerity to say, “then whose job is it?”

While high school graduation rates are climbing, particularly in Ontario and the Maritimes, one out of four students is still not completing secondary school on time. Entering high school, these struggling students lapse into chronic absenteeism and ‘school refusal behaviour’ that tends to mask their disengagement and alienation. “we don’t call them dropouts anymore,” Willms noted, “we call them ‘fade-outs’ or ‘push-outs.’ ”  In their final school years, few if any fail, but they do ‘check-out’ and are screened-out through course selections and post-secondary admissions selection processes.

VERNONIA, OR - January 9, 2014 - An empty desk here and there can mean many things, but it is a subtle reminder of who isn't in class. School attendance data shows who is winning the battle for student attention. Michael Lloyd/The Oregonian

VERNONIA, OR – January 9, 2014 – An empty desk here and there can mean many things, but it is a subtle reminder of who isn’t in class. School attendance data shows who is winning the battle for student attention. Michael Lloyd/The Oregonian

School absenteeism is a prevalent problem for today’s schools with tremendous long-term social, economic and human costs. While American school data shows that elementary school absenteeism has remained virtually unchanged since 1994, high school attendance rates have significantly deteriorated. A 2003 American study, based upon 230 youths in 4 high schools and 1 middle school found that many students “sometimes” (29.1%) or “often” (9.1%) deliberately or completely miss school. In addition, 54.6% of students sometimes skipped classes and 13.1% often did so.

Skipping school or refusing to attend for days on end is now being described in some U.S. states as a massive but overlooked “absenteeism epidemic.” In 2012, the estimated national rate of chronic absenteeism was pinpointed at 10 per cent, representing the percentage missing 21 or more days of school each year.  In February 2014, a feature story produced by Betsy Hammond for The Oregonian and aptly entitled Empty Desks”  revealed that one in five Orgeon students missed at least 10 per cent of the school year, equivalent to 3.5 weeks of school or more.

One Canadian province that has clearly identified student attendance as a serious problem is Nova Scotia. Five years ago, an NS Education Advisory Commission report, produced by Howard Windsor, Halifax’s former “one-man school board,” recommended extending compulsory school attendance to age 18/Grade 12 and a series of “staged interventions” for chronic “skippers” and truants.  Along with those measures, the committee proposed a range of inducements to keep students in school.  In extending schooling to 18, Nova Scotia would be following the lead of Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nunavut.

By 2009-10, chronic absenteeism, assessed in ten different N.S. high schools, was already rampant. With 7.4% of students missing 20% or more of classes and 45% absent for 10% of their classes, was a deeply entrenched problem.  Permissive discipline approaches such as the elementary level behaviour modification (PEBS) program and high school exam exemptions had contributed to the problem, so the proposed response was compulsion  in the form of compulsory schooling to 18. Extending compulsory school age was ultimately rejected by Education Minister Marilyn More, but a few band-aids were applied, including credit recovery programs and a two-year pilot project to deny course credit for non-attendance with a 20% threshold level.

Five years on, student absenteeism was still so rife that it surfaced again as a major unresolved problem.  An October 2014 Provincial Review of Nova Scotia Education, with the peculiar title Disrupting the Status Quo, found that  “student responsibility” was  sadly lacking, reflected in their laxity in attending classes, meeting deadlines, and making a genuine effort to do their best. Such factors, including disruptive students, warranted “stronger consequences than is currently the case in some classrooms.” Under School Climate, the renewed goal was to create learning environments where “respectful behaviour is an expectation for students, teachers, and parents.”(pp. 47 and 49).  The NS Education Department’s Action Plan for 2016 promises to introduce “a new student attendance policy.”  Another official proclamation is now in the offing.

What’s the fundamental cause of rampant student absenteeism and disengagement, particularly in high schools? How important are the major “risk factors” identified by leading American expert Christopher A. Kearney – poverty and socio-economic status, psycho-social and mental health issues, teen pregnancies, school climate, family structure, and parental involvement? In the case of school climate, what works to develop a higher level of student commitment, belonging and connectedness?  Will a student attendance crackdown be enough to change the current trajectory? 

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The latest Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) survey reveals that public education is in a sorry state and it’s impacting upon teacher effectiveness in the regular classroom.  Over 90 per cent of the 8, 096 teachers surveyed online in February and March 2014, identified “class composition” as a source of “work-related stress.” “In general, teachers feel they do not have adequate supports and services to address the broad range of special needs in their classrooms,” CTF President Dianne Woloschuk stated upon release of the ” Work-Life Balance” study.

TeacherStressCTF14Teachers certainly feel “stressed -out” even though public school enrollment, except in a few high growth school districts,  is mostly in decline and more educational tax dollars are being spent to educate fewer school children. Their biggest concern is the changing composition of the regular classroom and, in particular, the constant demands to provide “individualized support” in that classroom for every type of special needs.  Given those broad trends, making the case to spend more money to sustain the “all-inclusive” classroom model, especially after Grade 6, is difficult to fathom.

The CTF findings do point to a “stressed-out” teacher force and this is worrisome for those of us committed to improved education, sounder policies, and better schools. They also raise serious questions about the state of education and effectiveness of current policies. Here are the most glaring examples:

meeting the individual needs of all special needs kids in an inclusive classroom is next to impossible;
– three out of four educators cited interruptions to teaching by students;
– student absenteeism concerns 71 per cent of teachers;
-over six out of ten reported challenges in dealing with students’ personal or health-related issues.

Special Education services have turned regular classroom teaching into a virtual paperwork ordeal. Lack of time to plan assessments with colleagues was reported as a stressor by 86 per cent of teachers surveyed, while 85 per cent indicated marking and grading as a source of stress. Other stressors include increased administrative-related work and outdated technology.

The five policy changes proposed by the CTF all involve pouring more money into the ailing school system.  They appear, once again, in predictable fashion: lower class sizes, improve SE supports, expand prep time, reduce non-teaching tasks, and increase teaching resources.  None of them, except possibly creating smaller classes, really address the fundamental problem – “class composition” under the current inclusive education regime and the undercurrent of resistance to providing alternative special needs programs and expanding the range of specialized intensive support schools.

Given the daily classroom challenges and complex needs of today’s kids, it’s fair to ask “Is more money really the answer?”

The CTF is a national political action organization, representing teachers’ unions, and claiming to speak for nearly 200,000 elementary and secondary educators from 17 organizations (15 Members, one Affiliate Member and one Associate Member), from coast to coast to coast. Most of the constituent union groups produce “Teacher Stress” studies on a regular basis, usually in advance of province-wide bargaining sessions.

Among regular teachers, especially in junior and senior high schools, inclusive education is widely seen as desirable but next to impossible to implement.  It was invented and implemented over the past two decades, but never intended to accommodate the number of children now “coded” or “designated” for special education supports.  Even though class sizes have been declining in most provinces, managing let alone teaching those classes has rarely been more of a challenge.

A recent report produced by the Ontario funding lobby group, People for Education, is not helpful at all.  It’s founder Annie Kidder and core membership support the status quo in the all inclusive classroom, constantly pushing for more money and “more student supports” for every conceivable classroom problem. Appointing a Special Education Ombudsman, as conceived by P4E, would only solidify the existing student supports regime.

The odd teacher union leader breaks the faith and speaks out-of-school. That happened again this week when Shelley Morse, President of the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union, attempted to explain why more funding and supports were needed, once again. “Years ago, when the inclusion policy was introduced, it was a wonderful concept but it has never been fully funded and that’s where a lot of the issues arise from,” she said.”We don’t have the proper materials and the funding is not there for the human resources that we need.”

Teacher stress, real and perhaps embellished for effect, is a legitimate educational workplace issue. Yet the proposed policy changes advanced by Canadian teacher union advocates don’t really address the “elephant in the schoolhouse.”  If “class composition” is the heart of the problem why beat around the bush? What’s so sacrosanct about the current Special Education model based upon “inclusion for all” in a one-size-fits all classroom system?   It’s time to ask whether inclusive education, implemented as a whole system approach, is either affordable or effective in meeting student needs along the full continuum of service.

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Getting children and teens to offer information about school can often be more difficult than pulling teeth.  “What did you do in school today?” usually elicits the all-too-familiar response: “Nothing.” Did anything interesting happen?  “Nope.”  Did you like it? “It was O.K.”  What began is a routine question, ends up becoming a rather futile daily inquisition.

Renowned American child psychologist Michael Thompson once described this daily after-school ritual as “interviewing for pain.”  Parenting experts in Canada are so concerned about the matter that they actually offer “do’s and don’ts to increase your child’s willingness to share useful and important information about his school experience.” http://www.canadianparents.com/article/what-did-you-learn-in-school-today

The question “What did you do in school today?” even became the theme for a national study, conducted by J. Douglas Willms, Sharon Friesen and Penny Milton for the Canadian Education Association, in collaboration with the Canadian Council on Learning and school districts across Canada.  The CEA initiative’s first report, in May 2009, attempted to tackle the question of student engagement in the classroom, including the possible connections among adolescent learning, student achievement and effective teaching.

A Canadian Student Survey in 2007-2008, involving 32,000 students in 93 schools covering 10 different school districts turned up some troubling results.  Too many students are disengaged from learning in school; gaps in student achievement levels persist; and there is growing concern about whether the current models of schooling prepare all young people for future success in life and the workplace.    http://www.ccl-cca.ca/pdfs/otherreports/WDYDIST_National_Report_EN.pdf

The key findings were startling: Overall levels of social and academic engagement were quite low, but intellectual engagement was even lower in the schools. Levels of intellectual engagement declined significantly from  grades 6 to 12, dropping from 60% to less than 40% of all students. While students continued to feel a “sense of belonging,” they also reported a major drop in regular attendance.

School and class climate were surveyed extensively, but students were not asked an obvious question: What lay at the root of the lack of intellectual engagement?  Simply put, were they BORED by the academic expectations in class?

The original Tell Them From Me survey, designed by Willms and Patrick Flanagan, is not really intended to get at the root of the problem.  It’s an an assessment system that measures a wide variety of indicators of student engagement, wellness, classroom atmosphere, and school climate, focusing heavily on outside influences affecting learning outcomes. Among the areas covered are: perceptions of testing, involvement in sports teams and clubs, attendance, hours spent watching TV, a sense of belonging, post-graduation goals, bullying, self esteem, student anxiety and depression.   http://www.changelearning.ca/~cl/programs/tell-them-me-canadian-students-speak-about-their-schools

The CEA-funded survey, in fact, asks everything except whether students are challenged enough academically or to high enough behavioural standards.   Indeed, the CEA’s initiative is now looking to students themselves to help solve the myriad social problems that have, for generations, bedeviled the system. “CEA believes, ” we are told in a remarkably naive proclamation,  that ” students have an important part to play in shaping how we tackle these issues, think about learning environments, and consider the purposes of schooling.”   http://www.cea-ace.ca/programs-initiatives/wdydist

Why do leading Canadian educators continue to focus on the branches rather than the roots of the problem of student disengagement?  With over 60% of high schoolers reporting a lack of “intellectual engagement,” why look outside the system for the answer?  Was John Taylor Gatto completely wrong 20 years ago when he warned in Dumbing Us Down (1992) that the “hidden curriculum” of compulsory state schooling had a “deadening effect” on learning? Could it be that sound, challenging curriculum provides the best guarantor of student engagement?

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Student absenteeism is a serious issue in public education.  Concerted efforts have been expended aimed at engaging students and promoting active learning, but schools are still full of  “clock-watchers”  Many high schoolers regularly skip classes and, according to some inside reports, “the hallways are virtually empty some Friday afternoons.”

A recent report, commissioned by the Nova Scotia Education Department, bravely tackles the chronic issue.  The advisory committee, chaired by Howard Windsor, Halifax’s former “one-man school board,” recommends extending compulsory school attendance to age 18/Grade 12 and a series of “staged interventions” for chronic “skippers” and truants.  Along with those measures, the committee proposes a range of inducements to keep students in school.  In extending schooling to 18, Nova Scotia would be following the lead of Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nunavut.

What’s my initial response? When confronted with a growing problem of absenteeism, Nova Scotia Education seems to be considering “compulsory engagement” until age 18. With 7.4% of students missing 20% or more of classes and 45% absent for 10% of their classes, it’s a deeply entrenched problem. First came the carrot ( the elementary level behaviour modification (PEBS) program  and high school exam exemptions), now we seem to be resorting to the stick ( compulsory schooling to 18).

What does the education research say? Student engagement is clearly more important than attending and simply occupying classroom seats. Canada’s largest national school survey, Tell Them from Me, provided a clearer sense of the problem and identified the factors contributing to “a sense of belonging at school.”  “Improving school and classroom climate” are key to “increasing engagement,” says CRISP Director Douglas Willms (MASS Journal,Fall 2008).  Leading American expert, Deborah Meier (2002), sees school size as a critical factor — the smaller the school, the more likely students are to feel a sense of  attachment; the larger the school, the greater the potential for standardization, alienation and absenteeism.

A few critical questions need to be asked: Why are so many kids tuning out, skipping or dropping out in Nova Scotia and elsewhere? In legislating compulsory high school attendance, will we be giving up on making school more engaging for kids? And more importantly, will everyone be graduating?

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