A quarter of Nova Scotia public school students miss at least 16 days of school a year, a problem the province called a growing concern Wednesday as it announced a tougher policy related to absenteeism.

"This is not about punishing kids for not being in school," said Education Minister Zach Churchill. "This is about ensuring all partners in the education system are helping kids overcome their obstacles to being in school."

According to the Provincial Student Attendance and Engagement Policy, which takes effect Oct. 1, some of the measures intended to combat the issue include:

  • Grade 10 to 12 students who miss more than 20 per cent of class time for a given course may lose the credit for that course, even if they are getting a passing mark.
  • When the rate at which a student misses class or is late reaches 10 per cent, the school will contact the parent or guardian.
  • Teachers will only provide students with the material they missed during their absences if a request is made by the principal.

What constitutes an absence?

Participating in school activities, such as playing for a school sports team or going on a field trip, will not be considered an absence, according to the Department of Education. However, things such as illnesses, family vacations and a death in the family will be noted as an absence.

"We think this will put more kids in our classrooms," said Churchill. "It will create incentives to do that."

Just how the education system responds to student absenteeism and chronic lateness will depend on the age, grade and development of the student, a student's individual circumstances, and the judgment of teachers and principals, according to the province.

Support options

Absenteeism becomes more prevalent as students head into junior and senior high.

The education minister said the policy will help improve student attendance by providing supports, incentives and consequences.

The policy comes as a result of advice from the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions. The council was one of the elements included in the contract the Liberal government imposed on teachers.

The new policy will also put the onus on parents to better plan family vacations during the school year and on organizers of team sports trips.

Vacations and sports trips

Michael Cosgrove, a member of the council and a teacher at Dartmouth High School, said schools have long accommodated families who book last-minute vacations with cheap flights and sports teams.

"How about maybe you make accommodations for us? Why don't we set a bit more of the focus on attending and then you work around us? Because we think learning is important and there's a ton of opportunity from our schools and our education system that you can benefit from," he said.

Pilot projects will also be created where support workers will work with families and students when attendance becomes a concern.

The policy was first promised in 2015. 

"This is something teachers have been asking for for quite some time," said Liette Doucet, president of Nova Scotia Teachers Union. "They'll certainly be happy that there is now a policy in place."