Opinion: The pandemic has undermined what was once a given in public education: compulsory attendance

A cleaned classroom is seen during a media tour of Hastings Elementary School in Vancouver on September 2, 2020.

JONATHAN HAYWARD / The Canadian Press

Paul W. Bennett is Principal of the Schoolhouse Institute, Adjunct Professor of Education at Saint Mary’s University, and author of The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools.

Alarm bells are ringing following two disrupted school years due to COVID-19. It is estimated that 200,000 Canadian children did not attend school physically or virtually, and observers such as Irvin Studin warn that the costs of school closures in the event of a pandemic are “catastrophic and lasting” for the current generation of students.

The opening of fall schools is fast approaching, but most provincial education authorities have yet to consider the extent of the problem. Winning back the missing cohort of students, dubbed “the third group of children” by Mr. Studin, along with their families, may not be so easy. The century-long struggle for universal public education, much of which ended in the 1960s in Canada’s provincial systems, may well be with us again.

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Some 6 percent of Canadians do not have access to the Internet at home, so a large portion of the country’s 5.2 million students have not been able to access online education. Many students who have access to the Internet have opted out or left because they have insufficient family support, a lack of fluency in the language of instruction or were necessary to supplement the reduced household income. Many others, in the middle and upper classes, chose to turn off the screens showing Zoom courses because, without regular interaction with their peers, sports or cultural activities, they felt little connected to school..

Public education was taken for granted in Canada before the pandemic and was one of the least talked about social institutions and public sector systems. For at least 50 years, we have benefited from almost universal education for children aged 6 to 16. The praise of the virtues of public schools was simply accepted as the natural framework for the maintenance of common civic values ​​and considered essential to the proper functioning of a modern, pluralist and democratic society.

Public school, it is often forgotten, did not come about overnight, but rather emerged gradually, from province to province, from 1852. The last province to do so was Newfoundland and Labrador. -Labrador, which only established state-funded, tax-funded schools in 1942.

Without compulsory attendance, students’ attendance in class was sporadic and infrequent, especially before World War I in rural areas. In 1900, when 70 percent of the Canadian population lived in rural areas, the average daily attendance rate was 61 percent. Most of the students, boys and girls, have acquired a basic education, dropping out of school at the age of 9 or 10 to work on the farm, in factories or at home.

Compulsory school laws specifying when pupils should enter school have played an important role in achieving near universal education. In Ontario, for example, a series of laws enacted between 1871 and 1954 mandated school attendance for longer annual durations (four to eight months per year) and six or seven to 16 years, the minimum age for leaving. school. The hiring of attendance officers gradually helped reduce what was called “truancy”, but it remained common in rural areas during the harvest season.

The pandemic has undermined, to a surprising degree, the idea of ​​universal public education in person. While compulsory school laws remain in force, provincial, regional and local authorities have gradually phased out system-wide attendance officers and no longer have the capacity to enforce compulsory attendance.

A new educational frontier is emerging outside the public school system. School disruptions and closures have cost Ontario students 28 weeks of regular schooling since March 2020, and there is evidence of fallout. Motivated parents with financial resources hired teachers and created “learning modules”, but enrollment numbers remained relatively low. More tellingly, 80 new independent schools were opened in Ontario during the pandemic, bringing the total to 1,503, mostly small and in rural areas. With 150,666 students, independent schools in Ontario educate more students than Nova Scotia and almost as many as the public systems in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

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While about 92.8 percent of all Ontario students attended public schools at the start of the pandemic, private and independent schools have solidified their position as the preferred alternative for families with the means to afford. pay them. A recent survey of independent principals in Ontario found that, despite all school buildings being closed, almost half of participating schools did not miss a single day of teaching and, on average, missed less than four days of instruction during the transition to emergency distance education. learning.

School districts, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area, have indicated that in September they will comply with provincial guidelines and allow students to continue learning at home in hybrid models (mixed in-person and online) or remotely (fully online). Reliable estimates of the proportion of students who will learn exclusively online are hard to come by, but US projections indicate that one in four parents intend to keep their children at home.

As the new school year approaches, public education remains in pandemic imbalance. Dealing with the learning loss accumulated by students is a formidable task, but winning back students and families who have moved away or found an alternative offer may take longer, judging from past experience. Two reliable and long-standing indicators are worth watching: changes in the proportion of students enrolled in public schools in person and average daily student attendance. Turning the tables may well be the most critical education problem of our time.

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