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Kids missing more school since pandemic, CBC analysis finds

It’s a typical weekday in Beth Acton’s Montreal home. Two of her children are at school, but another, 12-year-old Connor, is asleep upstairs under a pile of Squishmallows. 

Acton logs on to an app on her phone to report Connor’s latest absence to his school, something she’s been doing regularly since the fall of 2022, which was the second time Connor got COVID-19.

“He is ill very, very frequently. You know, kind of catches anything that’s going around,” she said. “He sometimes just can’t even complete the school day.”

Connor, who is struggling to pass his Grade 7 year, has not been diagnosed with a chronic condition, but his delicate health has meant he’s missed most of the last four weeks of school.

A 12-year-old boy and his mother are pictured, both wearing masks.
Beth Acton, right, says her son Connor has been catching many more viruses since getting COVID-19 a second time. (Submitted by Beth Acton)

Absence rates increasing

Connor’s case is extreme, but exclusive data compiled by CBC News suggests he is far from alone in missing considerably more school than before the pandemic. In multiple districts across the country, rates of chronic absence — the percentage of students who miss at least 10 per cent of the school year, or two full days a month — are up significantly.

There is no data as to why. Interviews with experts and those affected suggest there are many reasons — from illness to bullying to a lack of support services — which vary by district and even by school.

CBC’s analysis found more children missing school in every district or province that was able to provide data compared with pre-pandemic. In six districts, the rate of absence or chronic absence more than doubled. In Newfoundland and parts of New Brunswick, more than half of high school students are chronically absent. But the most significant increases were among elementary students.

It’s an issue that’s flown under the radar in Canada because there is no publicly available national data on how many kids miss large amounts of school or the reasons why. 

This is not the case in both the U.S. and the U.K., where the number of students missing significant amounts of school is being called a national crisis.

The lack of data makes it almost impossible for policy-makers to get a sense of the scope of the problem and take action, says Maria Rogers, a child psychologist and Canada Research Chair in Child Mental Health and Well Being at Carleton University.

A smiling woman with dark hair is pictured in an office.
Maria Rogers, a child psychologist and Canada Research Chair in Child Mental Health and Well Being at Carleton University, says high levels of anxiety could be a reason kids are missing more school. (Andreas Wesley/CBC News)

“If we don’t have the data to show that our children are missing tremendous amounts of school, far more than they have in the past … then it’s easy to look the other way,” she told CBC News.

Children who attend school regularly generally have better emotional health, better relationships with teachers and stronger social connections, Rogers added.

“We know that academic achievement, broadly speaking, is one of the top predictors worldwide of a healthy adulthood.”

Pandemic impacts

It’s possible, experts say, that the pandemic has had a lasting impact on attitudes toward school attendance. Some parents, more likely to be working from home themselves, may be keeping their kids home with milder symptoms for longer than they would have pre-pandemic. 

For others, the extended periods of online school has shown they don’t always need to be physically present to keep up with their work. And then there are the kids who began their school experience during the pandemic. 

Rogers says there’s just been this normalization of school attendance problems, a change she’s noticed in her own home. “Even my own kids will sometimes say, ‘Well, I’ll just check Google classroom,’ right?”

Coloured pencils in a blue cup stand on a desk in empty classroom
CBC’s data showing increased rates of absence in schools is consistent with similar findings in the U.S. and U.K. (David Donnelly/CBC)

In the U.K., research from the Centre for Social Justice found one in five students were persistently absent in spring 2023, which represents a 60 per cent increase compared with pre-pandemic. The think tank also found the rate of severe absence among vulnerable children, or those receiving free school meals, was triple the rate of those not eligible for the free meal program.

In the U.S., Stanford University professor Thomas Dee compiled and analyzed data on chronic absenteeism in 40 states. His research, which compared 2018-19, the last pre-pandemic school year, with 2021-22, found an increase in every state. A large majority of states collect annual data on chronic absenteeism and use it as a performance indicator mandated by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, Dee wrote in his research paper. 

In Canada, there is no such body mandating the collection or publication of this data. As a result, absence data is collected inconsistently, if at all, by provinces or territories, school boards or individual schools, using different indicators that are not comparable across jurisdictions. 

Exclusive Canadian data

CBC News asked 41 Canadian school districts with more than 30,000 students for rates of chronic absenteeism for both pre- and post-pandemic school years. We received complete data from eight districts, two provinces and found publicly available data for two territories. Four additional districts provided data for only one time period, either pre- or post-pandemic. Twenty districts were unable to provide data and eight did not respond to our request by deadline.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, two-thirds of secondary school students were chronically absent in 2022-23, up from just under half in 2018-19, according to figures provided by the province’s Department of Education. For elementary students, the rate more than doubled, from 23 to 50 per cent over the same period.

The number of children missing school in the province was already a concern before the pandemic, with the province’s child and youth advocate releasing the results of an investigation into it in 2019. It identified learning disabilities, mental health problems for children and their parents, racism, poverty, substance abuse and violence in schools as some of the contributing factors. 

Multiple parents in Newfoundland, who did not want to be identified, said in social media messages that their children faced significant bullying that made them afraid to go to school.

Don Coombs, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils, says the factors keeping children away are so wide-ranging it’s impossible for schools to address them in isolation. 

Families, local governments and provincial departments of education and social services must work together to find out why children are missing school and help them, Coombs said, citing bullying as one example.

“Communities have to be involved. People should not feel intimidated to go walk through the doors of the school. It’s a place of learning and it has to be a safe and friendly environment,” he said.

Portrait of a man with a grey moustache standing in a room with the Newfoundland and Labrador flag in the background.
Don Coombs, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils, says student absenteeism has been a problem in the province for many years. (Katie Breen/CBC News)

The interruption of school during the COVID-19 pandemic may have made things worse by further weakening some students’ already tenuous connection to school.

“I think once you become disconnected with school, it’s hard to reverse,” Coombs said. “These children often lose their social connections. You know, they drop behind in the curriculum and … it’s hard to catch up.” 

Struggling children now ‘further behind’ 

Without data, it’s impossible to know for sure, but from her vantage point as an academic and child psychologist at Carleton, Rogers says it’s likely children who were struggling before the pandemic with things like learning disabilities, ADHD or anxiety account for at least some of the post-pandemic increase in absenteeism.

“The research is showing that a lot of those kids did not do well with online learning, so they’re now further behind. There’s an increased learning loss for some of those children, so you can imagine that that would also make it harder to get back to school,” she said.

Staff shortages across the country also made it difficult for districts to provide such students with the help they needed in the classroom, Rogers added.

Fredericton parent Laurel Richmond experienced this first-hand. Her son, now 10, was in kindergarten and Grade 1 during the pandemic. Richmond noticed he was having trouble reading and discussed it with his teacher, who she said took a wait-and-see approach. But as the weeks went by, Richmond became concerned.

A woman with short brown hair sits at a desk, with a bookcase and French doors behind her.
Fredericton mother and psychologist Laurel Richmond says her son, who has a learning disability, did not get the support he needed in school. (Zoom)

“You could see his demeanour was changing. He didn’t want to go to school,” she said. “He fought me most mornings. He oftentimes had stomach aches, headaches, body aches.” 

Richmond said her son told her he feels like he’s stupid and that everyone seems to get it but he’s just pretending to understand what’s going on. 

Richmond got her son privately assessed and the results showed he had dyslexia (difficulty reading) and dysgraphia (difficulty writing). The school offered some assistance, Richmond said, but did not have anyone with experience dealing with these conditions who could provide the help he needed. 

All of this, combined with a disruptive months-long pandemic closure at the end of kindergarten and a bullying situation that was causing her child further anxiety, led to Richmond’s difficult decision to pull her son out of the system in Grade 1 and home school. He is now much more confident and reading almost at grade level, she said. 

Richmond’s district, Anglophone West, saw significant increases in chronic absence at all grade levels

‘Mental health crisis’

The sense of anxiety Richmond describes in her son is something Rogers sees regularly in her practice as a child psychologist. Mental health deteriorated significantly for everyone since the pandemic, but it’s especially true of youth, she said, and it could be one reason they’re missing school.

“Some people in my field are calling it a mental health crisis amongst youth worldwide,” Rogers said. “We don’t have the services to provide to meet those needs either in the community or in the school system.”

And then there’s illness. Back in Montreal, Acton, a CEGEP teacher, says her department has had to devote permanent classroom space to people writing makeup exams because they’ve been home sick.

A girl and two boys sit on an oversized blue chair in a park.
Beth Acton’s three children, Tessa, left, Connor, centre, and Jacob, have all noticed more of their classmates missing school. (Submitted by Beth Acton)

Acton says her eldest son Jacob, who is 15, has told her there are a lot of kids that are absent quite frequently from his Grade 9 class. Acton also says her daughter Tessa who is 9, had a day in December where less than half her Grade 4 class was present. 

As for Connor, Acton suspects he has long COVID, but he has yet to get an appointment with a clinic that could make that diagnosis. Acton says she looks forward to having his health challenges resolved so he can get back in the classroom. Every day, she says she feels forced to choose between her child’s education and his health.

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