Children are not well at all: Teachers worry about absenteeism as COVID-19 challenges continue for parents, students

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Todd Perrier, a counselor with the Thunder Bay Catholic School Board, provides approximately 20 food hampers to families of students on April 29, 2021.

David Jackson / The Globe and Mail

Every Thursday for the past five months, Thunder Perrier has dropped groceries in as many families as 20 families in Thunder Bay.

Most of the times, he would steal a few minutes to speak with mom or dad. Where he can, and ever so gently, he checks on the children: will they enter their online class for an hour or two this week, or as much as they can handle? Is there anything he or his school can do to help them?

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

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As the pandemic began, more and more students were being dissuaded from school, mostly due to the difficulty of spending The increasing instability of switching back and forth between hourly online and in-class and online learning, teachers say.

Mr. Perrier’s caseload has doubled since the last academic year: his school board alone has nearly 360 students absent so far this year. They will have more referrals, he said, but attendance counselors are so overwhelmed that the board asked principals to send only the names of those who missed school more than three weeks.

“It’s hard to see what’s going on,” Mr. Perrier said. “I am very concerned about the harm done to children.”

Schools in Thunder Bay have stopped learning in person since March due to the increasing number of COVID-19 infections, and like all of Ontario, there is no planned withdrawal date.

The board is still sorting through data on how much school students missed. Research shows that attendance is one of the biggest predictors of academia Availability. The likelihood of graduating in high school and less in postsecondary decreases for students who missed more than 10 percent of a school year.

Wilfried Loire University researcher and assistant professor Kelly Gallagher-McKay said he is unsure of how attendance data will be analyzed this year. For example, a child learning remotely can sign in every day, but keeps his camera and microphone off and does not attend school. Ms. Gallagher-McKay fears students will “deeply disengage” in learning, making it more challenging to bring them back to class.

Recently, Mr. Perrier is finding it difficult to keep in touch with some students. Many families have asked the board to completely expel their children from school for this academic year.

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Only last week, a mother had tears in her eyes when she asked to find out why her grade 2 child was not going to school and how he could help. She was working from home. Her three children were learning at home. “It’s just happening too much.” This is too much, ”he told Mr. Perrier.

His role is to bring the students back to the classroom, even if it is for a short period of the day.

This was not the time for this.

“When I am on the phone with a mother who is crying, who is breaking up, what comes first?” he said. “The school is going to take a back seat for now. It is not that it is not important, but right now, they need to take care of themselves. “

She called again the next week, he told her.

He makes 15 to 30 calls a day. Worried families want his lawyer. Others are quiet, such as teenagers who are two credits shy of graduating high school, but are back in their bedroom.

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

“When you’re potentially struggling with depression and giving up, how would you expect someone to learn from you?” he said. He encouraged the teenager to reach out to the school’s guidance counselor.

Mr. Perrier worked with youth for nearly two decades, first as a child and youth worker at a mental-health agency in Thunder Bay, and now for four years, as a counselor with the school board. Their role is to help students who are consistently absent from school, and connect them and their families with social services and mental-health support.

Prior to the epidemic, he would drive students to school to ensure that they were currently marked. He will speak with families in their homes about support.

These days, he only connects with families face to face when he distributes food hampers coming 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 their frustrations.

The school board has tried to meet the 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 them together in a work package. Not ideal, but for now, it will do.

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

Barb Strickland, principal at St. Bernard’s School, said he referred three students to Mr. Perrier and his team since the closing in March. However, there are other students, that she and the teachers helped by modifying the daily school schedule. “What am i worried about [learning] The next year is going to look like that for a student who moves into the next grade, ”he said of those who have taken leave from school.

Mr. Perrier also worries about what it might mean when life returns to normal.

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

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