Elementary students in Hamilton schools staying home more since pandemic, data shows

When she heard a student threatened one of her daughters with scissors at school, Danielle Gendron says it “scared the life” out of her.The Hamilton woman took her daughter out of her Grade 2 class for a week before she returned.While that incident was last year, others she has heard about involving violence and disruption in class have led Gendron to take both daughters out of school at least once a week this year. They are now in grades three and seven.”It’s just not safe,” she told CBC Hamilton, adding that she’s been able to do that often because she works from home.Amanda Worthington, a parent with children aged eight and 10 in Hamilton’s public schools, said her two kids have been absent 39 times so far this year. Worthington, who works from home, said her kids have needed mental health days and have felt exhausted.She said her kids have missed class more often since the pandemic. The break has been needed and their marks have even gone up but she said she still wishes school was a better environment for them.Gendron and Worthington’s kids have an absence rate of 10 per cent or higher, which is also called being chronically absent. That 10 per cent absence rate works out to at least 18 days in the school year.The number of students who are chronically absent at Hamilton’s public and Catholic elementary schools has been on the rise since the COVID-19 pandemic.In the 2018 school year, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) had a chronic absence rate of 35 per cent. That number swelled to 54 per cent last school year.Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board (HWCDSB) has seen a similar jump, from 24 per cent in the 2017 school year to 48 in the 2021 school year.A CBC News analysis of data collected from school boards has found this is a national trend —  and it’s an issue that’s flown under the radar in Canada because there is no publicly available national data on how many kids miss large amounts of school or the reasons why.Learning disabilities and mental health issues made worse by the pandemic is believed to be a factor influencing a growing number of student absences. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)”If we don’t have the data to show that our children are missing tremendous amounts of school, far more than they have in the past … then it’s easy to look the other way,” said Maria Rogers, a child psychologist and Canada Research Chair in Child Mental Health and Well Being at Carleton University.She also said children who attend school regularly generally have better emotional health, better relationships with teachers and stronger social connections.Don Coombs, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils, said families, local governments and provincial departments of education and social services must work together to find out why children are missing school and how to help them because of the countless reasons that could be keeping kids away from class.”Communities have to be involved. People should not feel intimidated to go walk through the doors of the school. It’s a place of learning and it has to be a safe and friendly environment,” he said.Coombs and Rogers cited numerous potential reasons for the rise in chronic absenteeism including: Bullying. Learning disabilities and mental health issues made worse by the pandemic. Changes in attitudes toward school attendance. Parents working from home. COVID-19 and other illnesses. Gendron and Worthington, whose kids attend HWDSB, both said they don’t think the board has done enough to support students and staff.Michelle Lemaire, HWDSB’s superintendent of student achievement, said the board’s research has highlighted the pandemic’s impact on mental health, which has contributed to student absences.”Our upcoming Mental Health and Addictions Strategy will aim to support student well-being through staff training and evidence-based interventions,” Lemaire wrote.Lemaire also said staff are “mindful” of the physical and mental health impacts of the pandemic.Calin Worthington, 10, and Ava Worthington, 8, have missed 39 days of school each. (Submitted by Amanda Worthington)She also said the board’s strategic plan for 2023 to 2028 will help reduce chronic absences “as learning and achievement flourish.”CBC Hamilton asked HWDSB about how it is working against violence in schools but didn’t receive a response in time for publication. A 2021 report found bullying was a pervasive problem throughout the city’s schools and went unchecked many times at the public board. The report resulted in numerous recommendations in that report, including listening to students, involving families in bullying prevention, reviewing various policies, supporting schools to make their own plans and asking the province for support.Gendron said she wants to think school boards’ efforts will help, but doesn’t think they will.”It’s an absolute mess.”Last year, CBC Hamilton also reported that the union representing education support workers within Hamilton’s public school board has been calling on the provincial government to increase the number of its workers in Hamilton and take action to stop violence in schools, in order to improve conditions. A spokesperson for the education minister said at the time the government continued to invest in schools, including hiring new staff and supporting mental health resources. CBC Hamilton also contacted HWCDSB but didn’t receive a response in time for publication.

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