Tackle root causes of absenteeism

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Manitoba schools have an absenteeism problem.

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Opinion

Manitoba schools have an absenteeism problem.

In fact, it’s so chronic, Manitoba Education is urging schools to develop policies and practices that are more responsive to truancy.

It all comes down to a report (“Addressing Chronic Absenteeism in Manitoba: an Action Plan for Student Presence”) on truancy in Manitoba schools, the results of which were shared by the provincial education department last week. School leaders have until June to develop strategies to improve attendance in classrooms.

Divisions across Manitoba — some more than others — have for a while now struggled to keep students in schools.

The report found approximately 6,800 students in Manitoba public schools were unaccounted for between the start of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years. Although, it’s important to note this data was likely influenced to some degree by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here in the Wheat City, the Brandon School Division has faced higher rates of students missing from class since last November — whether it’s an excused or unexcused absence — than before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data from BSD administrators.

The absentee rate among Brandon students in kindergarten to Grade 8 was 7.5 per cent higher last November than before the pandemic. The rate jumped 6.5 per cent among high school students during that same time frame.

Anecdotally, BSD Supt. Mathew Gustafson said, illness appears to be causing most absences. However, he couldn’t say for sure what the reasons for truancy across the division are, since the division no longer employs someone to track those details.

This could soon change, though.

The report calls on officials to implement a co-ordinated approach to truancy, including the employment of so-called case managers, whose responsibility would be to investigate lengthy unexcused absences.

But with school divisions already facing funding issues, it’s hard to imagine where the money will come from to pay for these case managers.

Nonetheless, it’s an important step because otherwise, how can schools address the root causes of absenteeism if they don’t know why a student is unaccounted for in the first place?

There is only so much you can do when a student misses class due to illness. But what happens when sickness isn’t the reason behind an absence? It reflects a greater problem facing our education system, which is the failure to engage with students in a relatable and meaningful way, and that can have wide-ranging, potentially damaging effects on our communities.

Funding issues will likely only exacerbate this chronic problem, as school divisions will be forced to cut beloved programs and increase classroom sizes to make up for budget deficits. This will only further harm students’ learning experiences, giving them fewer reasons to engage with their education.

According to the report, truancy can be linked to harmful impacts on achievement, graduation, post-secondary enrolment, employment and health. It can also lead to involvement with the criminal justice and social services systems.

Regular attendance, however, can contribute to increased learning engagement and a greater sense of belonging to the community as well as a high school diploma, which can open doors to several other opportunities.

Clearly, this is an issue worth our attention. Hopefully, come June, our schools have developed strategies prepared to tackle truancy — the future of our students depends on it.

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