Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.
In mid-June, parents of students at the Toronto District School Board received the school year calendar for the coming academic year. Incorporating professional activity days and statutory holidays, the calendar reflects the provincial Ministry of Education’s requirement of a minimum of 194 school days, stretching from September 1 to June 30.
But there’s theory, and then there’s practice.
Shortly after receiving the blueprint for the next school year, my kids – in Grade 6 and 8 at the local middle school – told me that the current one was effectively over. Two weeks before the last day of school, their conscientious objection began.
It was common knowledge that teachers had written report cards on the PA Day on June 3, which is designated for that purpose. With grades being in, “none of this counts,” they told me. Buttressing their claim, one of their homeroom teachers took off – allegedly to attend a wedding in New Zealand. And then fellow students began dropping off: three friends had reportedly left for their cottages; two more were off to camp; another three might be sick, although two of them had been spotted at the corner store over lunch.
The weather didn’t help. Last Wednesday, my younger son, whose classroom is a steel portable parked on a field, came home looking like a damp tomato. Over the course of the day, his class had migrated from its metal kiln to a basement cafeteria to the shade under a tree, as the mercury hit 36 degrees C with 51 per cent humidity. Even the teacher had apparently admitted to feeling sick.
Messaging from the school was equally unhelpful. In the run-up to my Grade 8 son’s graduation last week, parents were asked to fill out a form indicating whether their children would be attending school on the day of and after the evening event: a Thursday and a Friday. The clear implication, happily reinforced by the kids, was that attendance was optional. Students were being offered 48 hours to prepare for and then recover from their 15 seconds of fame on a school auditorium stage. And optional it proved to be: only seven of the 30 students in my son’s class showed up for school on the day after graduation.
My son was not among them, claiming, irrefutably, that his truancy was school-sanctioned, and that when nobody shows up for class, nothing of note happens. This is the downward end-of-year spiral, the self-fulfilling prophecy that leaves a handful of kids in an overheated classroom playing on their phones. I managed to compel his younger brother to attend school, but within minutes I was receiving emails from the portable trenches.
“Playing video games now.” “We’re going to watch Hoot on Monday.” “Half the class is missing.” “Can I come home?”
The fizzling out of the school year isn’t just lackadaisical, it’s a capitulation – to exhausted teachers, disengaged students and indifferent families. It tells students that just as they opted to turn off their cameras during remote learning, so too can they opt out of school. It suggests that education’s purpose begins and ends with the report card; that what matters are the grades, not the learning. And it flies in the face of the values that the school board trumpets at every turn. How equitable and inclusive is it to pit families with cottages, overnight camps and stay-at-home parents against those who have no choice but to plan their lives around the scaffolding of the school year?
I’m not the killjoy who thinks kids need to be declining Latin and memorizing capital cities till the bitter end. I’m all for the scavenger hunts, field trips, games days and end-of-year parties that marked the end of my school years not so long ago. Among other things, school can and should be fun. But it can’t be optional.
In Germany, where I used to live, end-of-year truancy is no laughing matter. In the days leading up to the summer holidays, police are stationed in airports, on the look-out for families with school-aged children who are trying to get a head-start on their holidays. At passport control, parents can be asked to produce a permission form authorizing their kids to miss school. Absent that, they’re subject to fines. In Berlin, it’s a maximum of 2500 euros ($3409).
Public education requires commitment from all sides: from those who provide it and those who receive it. In the speeches at my son’s Grade 8 graduation, the term “resilience” got a lot of play, as graduates were lauded for their adaptation to the upheavals of the pandemic. The school system has to model the same, in theory as well as practice.
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