Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Paul W. Bennett: Is school becoming optional? More students than ever are missing class post-COVID

Commentary

The COVID-19 pandemic and its school shutdowns still haunt us. One in five children in the United Kingdom are persistently absent from school and are now described as “lost children.” The “staggering figure” has been identified as a national education crisis. In a rare show of unanimity, Education Secretary Jillian Keegan and Labour shadow secretary Bridget Phillipson both agree that it threatens the “life chances” of today’s generation. 

Opening the London Sunday Times of January 7, 2024, a front-page news story grabbed U.K. readers’ attention. “One in four parents now think it’s fine for kids to skip school.” That startling statistic was based upon a YouGov poll conducted in December 2023 for a national think tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ). It revealed, according to CSJ chief executive Andy Cook, there was “fundamental work to be done in rebuilding the contract between families and schools.” 

Everywhere you look education systems are now coming to terms with the new reality. “Chronic absenteeism,” defined as missing 10 percent of the school year (i.e., 18 days or more), has been normalized in post-pandemic times. What student data we have presents a consistent pattern throughout North America and from province to province across Canada. 

Student absenteeism rates have more than doubled. American school data, compiled by Stanford Education professor Thomas Dee, confirmed that the national average was 28 percent of students in 2020-21, double that of 2018-19. In Michigan, it rose to 39 percent during the pandemic. More recent data shows some improvement, but some cities still report absenteeism rates of 40 percent. 

Finding reliable Canadian data requires considerable digging. In Ontario, the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board is fairly representative. Its regular student absenteeism rate rose from 3 to 4 percent in 2020 to between 8 and 14 percent in November 2022. That same month, Manitoba’s largest school district in Winnipeg reported that one in five students were absent, considerably more than the typical rate of 12 to 14 percent. 

Provinces claim they do not track rates of chronic absenteeism, but raw attendance data is reported in most cases. In New Brunswick’s Anglophone School District West, the average absentee rate in early 2023 (February to April) hovered around 2.4 days per month for grades 9-12 and around 1.8 days for K-8 students. Projected over 181 school days, record numbers of students were in danger of being chronically absent from school. 

Until recently, Canadian researchers and school districts have been essentially absent on the matter of tracking student absenteeism. That very point was made quite effectively in a rather provocative September 2021 Canadian Journal of Education article by University of Ottawa researcher Anton Birioukov. 

Student absenteeism in Canada tends to run higher than in comparable Western countries. The number of Canadian students reporting skipping school on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) grew by 5.4 percent between 2015 and 2018.OECD 2018, 2019 During the same period, the U.K. saw absenteeism drop by 5.6 percent, and the U.S. saw a tremendous 18.8 percent decline. Up until 2018, both countries reported lower absenteeism rates (U.K. 18.8 percent; U.S. 19.9 percent) than Canada (23.2 percent). 

Birioukov’s review of university faculty profiles revealed that “no Canadian educational scholar investigates absenteeism as their primary area of research,” and he saw that as a critical policy issue. “The lack of empirical knowledge concerning student absenteeism,” he claimed, “is a contributing factor to the high levels of absenteeism evident in Canada.” His article was essentially a call to action for Canadian academics to provide the research to assist in addressing the problem.

What exactly is causing this uptick in absenteeism? While the requisite research into the matter hasn’t been conducted, it is not a stretch to think about this as an example of societal “long COVID,” wherein the long-term consequences of the pandemic are still being felt. Parents and students alike became even more acclimatized to children missing class due to the COVID-19 shutdowns and have yet to adjust back to pre-pandemic norms.

Regardless of the cause, current rates of student absenteeism threaten to undermine our relative success in instilling in the populace a commitment to ensuring school-age children are in regular attendance. Alarming rates of absenteeism suggest that parents, as well as children, do not prioritize school attendance to the degree they did a generation ago when compulsory school attendance was generally accepted across a wide cross-section of Canada’s socio-economic communities. 

The persistence of high absentee rates demonstrates that it is not a passing phenomenon. Schooling is becoming optional and it will have dire consequences for the life prospects and employability of the pandemic generation. Winning students and their parents back is the strategic education issue of our time. 

Michael Kempa: We don’t need to defund the police. We just need to spend more wisely

Commentary

Last week, a study published in the Canadian Public Policy journal found that the amount of money spent on policing is not correlated with reduced crime. However, the usual “progressive” chorus calling to defund policing in response is misdirected.

Any social scientist worth their salt will tell you—as the authors of the above study are at pains to underline—that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. Spending more on policing may not lower crime rates, but the conclusion does not follow as a matter of good social science that policing is useless.

Yes, sinking ever more money into an outdated policing model unsuited to the crime and public disorder challenges of the present is a bad prospect for return on investment. Almost everyone, police included, would agree that we cannot go on training generalist law enforcers for a world of networked problem-solving.

However, intelligent investments in policing can do more to enhance public safety and maintain public order than simply reduce crime rates. Success requires restructuring the institution as a professionalized “enforcement and problem-solving support” pillar among many others in city-driven and province-mandated plans for Community Safety and Well-Being (CSWB). This is not the same as simply defunding the police.

Popular amongst various streams of the defund the policing movement is the call to simply take some (or, in more radical camps, all) money out of swelling police budgets and reallocate it to front-end “helping professions” (such as mental health and addictions reduction practitioners) and expanded social services (such as housing and basic levels of guaranteed income) to proactively phase criminogenic factors out of communities.

While such approaches may appear humane, there remains one glaring problem: they do not work without any element of enforcement.

I will provide two examples.

First is the interconnected set of “wicked problems” of growing homelessness (which at its extreme leads to tent cities), death, and gang-driven street violence associated with swelling opiate addictions in major cities across Canada.

When I had the opportunity to visit one of the country’s largest encampments in Edmonton, I saw firsthand how the grip of adulterated opiates leads to a cycle of near-total helplessness and death. Impoverished, addicted, un-housed people have whatever monies are provided to them stolen by force by organized gangs, while the risk of death by overdose or tent fire is high.

The premise that we cannot “arrest our way” out of such problems may be a good starting point. The impulse to send paramedic emergency responders, addictions counsellors, and housing authorities to deal with “root causes” is likewise a good one. The catch, however, is that these professionals will not go into tent cities on their own because it is simply too dangerous.

An emergency responder coming upon a prone, overdosing person must essentially make an informed but imperfect guess of what combination of narcotics may be in their system in order to administer the appropriate antidote. Guess wrong, and there is no way to predict how someone may come out of their comatose high. Will the individual be pacific and grateful, will they be irritated to have had their high “ruined,” or will they come out in an adrenalized and violent rage?

Add to this the fact that the tents are full of knives, bear spray, and other improvised weapons and it is easy to understand why police must accompany helping professionals to ensure everyone’s safety. They can also assist in filtering the crowds to prioritize those who can be helped over the hardened criminal element—and, in the real world, those who may require urgent and enforced medical treatment.

The second, very different, example is the role of professionalized policing in maintaining public order during protests. It is of vital importance that protests be allowed; they are the essential avenue for relatively powerless people to meaningfully engage and shape social and political outcomes. This requires large amounts of proactive, “gentle” negotiation between protest leadership (where sizable factions may exist), community leaders, cities, and police services. Among their many other important responsibilities, police liaison teams are increasingly effective at the integral role of protest management.

A protester records a police line with their phone as police move in to clear downtown Ottawa near Parliament Hill on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. Justin Tang/The Canadian Press.

In mass protests, as in tent cities, however, there are always some who break the law. Some do so simply as a matter of opportunity, while others are more strategic in seeking to turn legitimate protests in the unruly direction of various extremist ideologies. For these, instigating a violent state response is the whole point.

Amongst the pillars of safe and democratic community protest, it remains the essential role of the police to investigate, arrest, and charge protesters who incite hatred against an identifiable group, who prevent people from using property for its essential purposes for unreasonable durations of time (mischief), or who intimidate others from accessing spaces. Law enforcement works to remove these criminal elements in order to return protests to their lawful and legitimate state. While making such arrests elevates crime rates, it is useful for protest safety all the same. Not to mention they ensure the protests’ legitimate purposes are not corrupted and undermined by elements with bad intentions.

The authors of the university study have done us a great service in pointing out that spending more but unwisely on policing is a dead end. The way forward is incorporating evidence of what sustainably works to promote community safety and well-being—not mumbling the ideological shibboleths of “progressive abolitionism” and leaving the fundamental problems unsolved.