Pandemic exacerbates attendance challenges, say N.W.T. superintendents

School attendance has been an issue in the N.W.T. for years — but superintendents throughout the territory say the pandemic has added an extra layer of difficulty to keeping students in school.

'Some gaps in learning' expected as children miss out on in-person school

Desks inside Yellowknife's Range Lake School, spaced out to encourage physical distancing. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

School attendance has been an issue in the N.W.T. for years — but superintendents throughout the territory say the pandemic has added an extra layer of difficulty to keeping students in class. 

In the 2016-2017 academic year, the average attendance rate for grade school students across the territory was about 83 per cent — meaning, on average, students were missing nearly one day of school per week. 

In smaller communities, the average attendance rate that year was 77 per cent. 

But during the pandemic, many more students in the territory have been missing class, whether in-school, or online. 

"Compared to pre-COVID, I would dare say that all schools in the N.W.T. have somehow been affected," said Philippe Brûlot, superintendent of the Dehcho Divisional Education Council. "Definitely, the Dehcho has seen a decrease in attendance over the past year and a half because of COVID — that's for sure."

Shannon Barnett-Aikman, the assistant deputy minister of Education, Culture and Employment said the territorial government is still "working to understand the impact of COVID-19 on learning." 

"Just like other jurisdictions, we do have some data gaps in assessing the impact of the pandemic on students, given that measurements of attendance, and attainment levels were hampered during the last school year," she said. 

While the decision to open schools or not ultimately rests with the individual school districts, the territorial government hopes they will remain open as much as possible, Barnett-Aikman said. 

"We know that being in-person, in-school provides benefits that are really difficult to replicate — if not impossible to replicate — through a distance learning approach," she said. "These include … a whole host of measures that speak to social growth and development, improved instruction and learning [and] a variety of extracurricular activities that are conducive to a safe environment under the current reality."

Huge impact on attendance 

Brûlot did not have hard data on how many of his division's approximately 440 students had been missing class this academic year, but he said the pandemic has had a "huge impact on attendance," with perhaps 10 or 20 per cent fewer students than usual attending class. 

"Parents are very worried when there is an outbreak in the community — which is understandable," he said. "Over the course of the pandemic, there have been situations where you cannot send kids to school."

N.W.T. Sahtú DEC Superintendent Renee Closs says attendence in junior kindergarten to Grade 9 was 68 per cent during the first week back to school at Mackenzie Mountain School in Norman Wells. (CBC)

Renee Closs, superintendent of the Sahtú DEC, has seen a similar trend. She says the pivot to online learning has made it more difficult for schools to track attendance in the traditional sense, but as students return to in-person classes, the data is more clear. 

Students at  Mackenzie Mountain School students in Norman Wells have been back in school since Jan. 24 and Closs says attendance for junior kindergarten to Grade 9 was 68 per cent that week..

"Students were excited to return to school for in-person learning and parents were trusting that the school was a safe place for their children," Closs added. 

When schools have to shift between in-person and online learning, Closs says the Sahtú council has focused on the students whose academic futures would be most immediately impacted by time out of class. 

Grade 12 students who would be eligible to graduate this year were given priority for tools like turbosticks, for example. 

During periods of online learning, teachers throughout the territory have been sending home learning packages and working with their students on the phone. 

"Thankfully, we have dedicated teachers and we have a good team, and everyone is intent on doing their best efforts to help our children catch up," said Brûlot.

The territorial government has also provided students with Chromebooks and mobile internet access. 

Schools expecting gaps in learning and social development

Still, Closs expects to see "some gaps in learning" given students were out of the classroom and learning remotely for a significant portion of this academic year. 

"The Sahtú is currently looking to the future to identify ways we can address these gaps," she said. 

Brûlot is worried about the consequences of students spending more time out of school, which he says may impact more than their academic success. 

"Attendance is important for social interactions," he said. "That's when you learn how to interact with kids your age, that's how you learn to deal with situations, that's where you are taught how to cope when you are under stress. So being in person in school makes a big difference. 

Brûlot says, in the middle of a pandemic, being in school isn't alway's choice.

"But as soon as this is over, I hope that we see all of our children in the classroom."