Maria A. Rogers is the Canada Research Chair in Child and Youth Mental Health and Well-Being at Carleton University.
Stay home. This familiar phrase became commonplace over the past three years. Even today, I still feel the heaviness of what those words truly meant: Stay home to stay safe. To protect ourselves and those we love. For the most part, Canada obeyed. We stayed home.
But now, as Canadian society slides back into a semblance of prepandemic times, we are experiencing serious repercussions in our education system from this once-necessary public-health message.
This fall, as classrooms are back in session and schools are once again hosting gatherings for sports, music and the arts, more students seem to be missing school than ever before. Before COVID-19, a student being routinely absent from school would raise alarm bells for educators and mental-health professionals. In our current environment, and from my own perspective as a parent and clinical psychologist, missing school even for days on end is now the norm for many children.
Chronic absenteeism, which is defined as missing 10 per cent or more of school days (about two days for each month), had already been extensively studied by education and psychology researchers prior to the pandemic. It has been linked with a multitude of adverse student outcomes, from early to late childhood: poor academic achievement, lower emotional well-being and early termination from high school.
Importantly, high rates of absenteeism among students in the earliest grades can have a snowball effect throughout a child’s schooling experience. Students who are chronically absent as early as kindergarten are far more likely to drop out of high school, compared with children who are not routinely absent in the early grades.
I see this worrisome trend in my practice as a child and adolescent clinical psychologist in Ottawa, and through discussions with my colleagues in the field of education.
As a psychology researcher at Carleton University, I am also witnessing alarming data trends elsewhere in the world. Data from the United States and England, for instance, paint a grim picture of how COVID-19 affected school attendance. In parts of these countries, chronic absence dramatically increased – and many experts feel that these statistics are an undercount of actual numbers. Data from both countries also show that chronic absenteeism was higher among students who qualified for free or reduced-price meal programs, further highlighting the role that inequality can play in a child’s path to education.
So what is the current state of school attendance in Canada?
We have no idea.
We have no national public data on student absenteeism in our country.
Obtaining and publicizing pan-Canadian data on student attendance would be no easy feat. Education is a provincial responsibility, meaning that the provinces are under no obligation to share or amalgamate attendance data (and many do not publicize what they have even for their own jurisdictions).
Studies from other countries suggest that children who experience socio-economic marginalization have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and have been less likely to re-engage in school since the pandemic. Is this the case in Canada? Are we letting our most vulnerable students fall further through the cracks of our education system? I believe that the higher rates of absenteeism are inextricably linked with the current mental-health crisis facing Canadian children and youth, compounding the problem further.
Let me be clear though: There are many legitimate reasons for children to miss school in the current context, and I believe that parents are doing their best. The current rates of spread of RSV and influenza among pediatric populations in Canada has been well-documented this fall, with children’s hospitals filled to capacity.
Likewise, educators and mental-health professionals are working tirelessly to get children back in the classroom and equitably engaged in their school communities. However, we need data on absenteeism in order to best direct these efforts.
Who is missing school and why? Without adequate data that is accessible to researchers and policy-makers, we have no way to answer this critically important question. We are walking blindfolded into the future with no understanding of the magnitude of this problem.
The pandemic may be coming to an end, however the normalization of absenteeism, like so many of the ripple effects from COVID-19, will have devastating long-term effects on Canada’s children and youth – and lead to further educational inequity in our country.