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Todd Perrier, an attendance counsellor with the Thunder Bay Catholic School Board, delivers about 20 food hampers to families of students on April 29, 2021David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

Every Thursday for the past five months, Todd Perrier has dropped off bags of groceries at the doorstep of as many as 20 families in Thunder Bay.

Most times, he will steal a few minutes to speak with mom or dad. Where he can, and ever so gently, he checks in on the children: Would they log into their online classroom for an hour or two this week, or for as much as they can handle? Is there something he or their school could do to help them?

Mr. Perrier is an attendance counsellor for the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board, acting as an intermediary between home and school for hundreds of children who have been absent 16 or more consecutive days.

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Since the pandemic began, more and more students are disengaging from school, mostly because of the difficulty of spending hours online and the heightened instability of switching back and forth between in-class and online learning, educators say.

Mr. Perrier’s caseload has doubled from the previous academic year: About 360 students at his school board alone have been persistently absent so far this year. He would have more referrals, he said, but attendance counsellors are so overwhelmed that the board asked principals to send only the names of those who have missed more than three weeks of school.

“It’s hard to see what’s happening,” Mr. Perrier said. “I’m very concerned about the damage this is doing to kids.”

Schools in Thunder Bay have been closed to in-person learning since March because of a rising number of COVID-19 infections, and like all of Ontario, there’s no planned return date.

Boards are still sorting through data on how much school students have missed. Research shows that attendance is one of the biggest predictors of academic achievement. The chances of graduating high school and going on to postsecondary diminish for students who have missed more than 10 per cent of a school year.

Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, a researcher and assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said she is unsure how attendance data would be analyzed this year. A child learning remotely, for instance, may sign in every day but keep their camera and microphone off and not participate in school. Ms. Gallagher-Mackay’s fear is students will “deeply disengage” in learning, making it more challenging to bring them back to the classroom.

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Lately, Mr. Perrier is having a difficult time getting in touch with some of the students. A number of families have asked the board that their children be excused from school altogether for this academic year.

Only last week, a mom was in tears when he called to find out why her Grade 2 child was not attending school and how he could help. She was working from home. Her three children were learning at home. “This is just getting too much. This is too much,” she told Mr. Perrier.

His role is to get students back into the classroom, even if it’s for a small period of the day.

This wasn’t the time for it.

“When I’m on the phone with a mother who’s crying, who’s breaking down, what comes first?” he said. “School is going to have to take a back seat for now. Not that it’s not important, but right now, they need to focus on taking care of themselves.”

He would call back again next week, he told her.

He makes 15 to 30 calls a day. Anxious families want his counsel. Others are quiet, such as the teenager who is two credits shy of graduating high school but has withdrawn to his bedroom.

Mr. Perrier spoke with him about a month ago and tried to draw him out of his room and to go for a walk.

“How do you expect someone to learn when they’re potentially struggling with depression and giving up?” he said. He encouraged the teen to reach out to the school’s guidance counsellor.

Mr. Perrier has worked with young people for about two decades, first as a child and youth worker at a mental-health agency in Thunder Bay and, for four years now, as an attendance counsellor with the school board. His role is to help students who are persistently absent from school, and connect them and their families with social services and mental-health supports.

Before the pandemic, he would drive students to school to make sure they were marked as present. He would speak with families in their homes about supports.

These days, he only connects face-to-face with families when he delivers food hampers that come from a local non-profit organization. The rest is done over the phone – hour-long, sometimes tearful conversations with parents about what they need. He listens to them vent their frustrations.

The school board has tried to meet families where they are, he said. A student may not be able to spend hours in front of a computer, so perhaps the teacher will put together a work package. Not ideal, but for now, it will do.

“We’re laying off putting the pressure on because we see how much distress families are in. Right now, all I can do is really listen and support on the phone,” he said.

Barb Strickland, principal at St. Bernard School, said she referred three students to Mr. Perrier and his team since the closing in March. There are other students, though, that she and educators have helped by modifying the daily school schedule. “I am concerned about what [learning] is going to look like next year for that student moving on to the next grade,” she said of those who have disengaged from school.

Mr. Perrier also worries about what this could mean when life returns to normal.

“There are many families that are just completely off the radar right now.”

Health columnist André Picard outlines how kids could be back in classrooms in the fall, starting with getting all adults vaccinated by Canada Day, followed by a program of vaccinating children with an approved reduced dose ahead of school resuming in September.

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