Every Thursday for the past five months, Todd Perrier has dropped grocery bags at the doorsteps of no less than 20 families in Thunder Bay.
Most of the time, he’ll steal a few minutes to talk to mom or dad. Where he can, and still as gentle as ever, he checks the kids: Would they log into their online class for an hour or two this week, or as much as they can handle? Is there anything he or their school can do to help them?
Mr. Perrier is an attendance counselor for the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board, acting as an intermediary between home and school for hundreds of children absent for 16 consecutive days or more.
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Since the start of the pandemic, more and more students are withdrawing from school, mainly due to the difficulty of spending hours online and the increased instability of the shift from classroom learning to online learning, according to teachers.
Mr. Perrier’s workload has doubled from the previous school year: around 360 students from his school board alone have been consistently absent so far this year. He would have more referrals, he said, but attendance counselors are so overwhelmed that the board has asked principals to send only the names of those who have missed more than three weeks of school.
“It’s hard to see what’s going on,” Mr. Perrier said. “I am very concerned about the damage this is doing to children.”
Thunder Bay schools have been closed to in-person learning since March due to a growing number of COVID-19 infections, and like across Ontario, there is no scheduled return date.
School boards are still sorting through the data on what students missed. Research shows that attendance is one of the biggest predictors of success. The chances of graduating from high school and pursuing post-secondary education decrease for students who have missed more than 10%. 100 of a school year.
Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, a researcher and assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said she was unsure how attendance data would be analyzed this year. A child who learns remotely, for example, can log in every day but keep their camera and microphone turned off and not attend school. Ms. Gallagher-Mackay’s fear is that students will “deeply disengage” from learning, making it more difficult to bring them back to class.
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Lately, Mr. Perrier has struggled to get in touch with some students. A number of families have asked the council for their children to be completely exempted from school for this school year.
Just last week, a mom was in tears when he called to find out why her Grade 2 child was not in school and how he could help her. She worked from home. Her three children were learning at home. “It’s just too much. It’s too much, ”she told Mr. Perrier.
Its role is to bring the students back into the classroom, even if it is for a small period of the day.
It was not the moment.
“When I’m on the phone with a crying, collapsing mother, what comes first?” he said. “The school will have to take a back seat for the moment. Not that it’s not important, but right now they need to focus on taking care of themselves.
He would call back next week, he told her.
He makes 15 to 30 calls a day. Anxious families want his advice. Others are calm, like the teenager who has two credits less to finish high school but has retired to his bedroom.
Mr Perrier spoke to him about a month ago and attempted to get him out of his room and for a walk.
“How do you expect a person to learn when they are potentially struggling with depression and give up?” he said. He encouraged the teenager to contact the school guidance counselor.
Mr. Perrier has worked with youth for approximately two decades, first as a child and youth worker at a mental health agency in Thunder Bay and, for four years now, as an attendance counselor with the school board. Its role is to help students who are constantly absent from school and to put them and their families in contact with social services and mental health supports.
Before the pandemic, he drove students to school to make sure they were marked as present. He spoke with the families at home about the supports.
These days, he only connects face to face with families when he delivers food baskets from a local nonprofit organization. The rest is done over the phone – hour-long, sometimes heartbreaking conversations with parents about what they need. He listens to them express 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 develop a work package. Not ideal, but for now it will do.
“We are putting the pressure off because we see how the families are in distress. Right now all I can do is really listen and support on the phone, ”he said.
Barb Strickland, principal of St. Bernard School, said she had referred three students to Mr. Perrier and his team since the closure in March. There are other students, however, that she and the educators have helped by changing the daily school schedule. “I am concerned about this [learning] is going to be like next year for that student moving up the grade, ”she said of those who have dropped out of school.
Mr Perrier is also worried about what it might mean when life returns to normal.
“There are a lot of families who are just completely off the radar right now.”
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