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New Brunswick's education minister Dominic Cardy said there was a need for a 'consistent approach' to tracking students.

The Canadian Press

New Brunswick is planning to track the number of students who only attend school for part of the day, becoming the first province to undertake the effort on a wide scale. This change comes amid recent reports that Canadian children with complex needs are disproportionately targeted and excluded from school for indefinite periods.

Starting in the fall, the government said, it will monitor the number of students on partial or reduced days in its anglophone school districts through an online tool that will include the reason for the modified day, the student’s schedule, goals and the supports in place.

Dominic Cardy, the province’s education minister, said there was a need for a “consistent approach” to tracking students.

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“There have been increasing concerns from teachers, district leaders, and parents with regard to partial days," he said in an e-mail statement, adding that "we have to make sure kids are in school. It’s a contract with the next generation.”

Over the past few decades, many parents and disability advocates have welcomed the move toward including students with complex needs into regular classrooms. But some educators wonder if not enough thought has gone into how special-needs children are taught.

Teachers have reported an uptick in violence that makes teaching more difficult. Further, families of children who have intellectual and developmental disabilities are increasingly being asked to pick up children early, start their school day later or keep them home for an indefinite period because of behavioural issues, a Globe and Mail analysis in January found.

Most school boards do not formally track these exclusions, with the exception of school districts in North Vancouver and Greater Victoria, which passed motions to do so last fall. The Ontario government recently said it would hold “virtual sessions” on exclusions and modified days with parents, educators and others after demands from disability advocates that the practice be halted.

A spokeswoman for the New Brunswick education ministry said the online tool will provide the government and school districts with data to identify where supports are necessary for students with behavioural and mental health needs, as well as track the progress they’ve made, with the goal of getting them back into school full-time. The Francophone school districts do not track partial days, but are working on guidelines, the government said.

Sarah Wagner, executive director of the New Brunswick Association for Community Living, said documenting the issue will allow the province and school districts to understand how pervasive the problem is for students. Families whose children attend school for only part of the day request help from her organization to access full-day schooling, she said.

New Brunswick is unique in its inclusive education policy, because it calls for a “common learning environment” for all students. Segregated classrooms aren’t an option, and instruction must be primarily provided by the classroom teacher.

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New Brunswick Teachers’ Association president, George Daley, said there needs to be some flexibility so students with behavioural issues can spend time outside the regular classroom learning different life skills. He said the new online tool is a recognition by the province that partial days can happen and supports need to be put in place and documented.

“We know there are students who cannot handle the full day in a regular program and we need options for them,” Mr. Daley said.

But Jody Carr, a former education minister and an inclusive-education advocate, argued that partial days and expulsions due to disability have been happening without any accountability or support, and should not be allowed.

Mr. Carr said the new system means that “supports will be triggered and targeted, decisions will be data driven and there will be an intentional effort made to ensure kids are returned back to school and attending as much as possible.”

A story in The Globe in January highlighted the plight of Grayson Kahn, a seven-year-old with autism and behavioural issues who was expelled from his school in Guelph, Ont. The expulsion followed an incident in which Grayson struck an educational assistant, leaving her with a concussion.

Expulsions such as Grayson’s are rare; they involve a principal’s report and a hearing by a school board committee.

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Tracy Humphreys, whose parent-driven group BCEdAccess has been collecting data on school exclusions, said that students attending for only part of the day or excluded for days at a time are far more common – and informal – phenomena; parents are given oral notice of a decision made at a principal’s discretion.

She said New Brunswick’s move to track a student’s school attendance is recognition that this is an issue. Her tracking data shows it is happening more frequently in B.C., but she said that “without the [provincial] data though, we can’t be really sure.”

"Not examining that data is a sign that inclusive education is still not the priority that it should be in B.C., across Canada and around the world,” Ms. Humphreys added.

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