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Report finds school attendance rate a symptom of larger issues

In the 2019/20 school year an average of 34 per cent of Yukon students missed 20 or more days of school.
According to a new report, 34 per cent of Yukon students were chronically absent last year. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)

A new report on attendance in Yukon elementary schools and high schools finds high rates of missed classes are symptoms of larger issues in schools.

The Yukon Child and Youth Advocate, an independent office of the legislature that aims to protect the rights of children and youth, released the report May 31.

“Being marked absent is a symptom, not the whole issue,” said Annette King, the Yukon’s Child and Youth Advocate.

“We knew that there were root causes, but we didn’t really have a good understanding of them. We didn’t find that the Department of Education was able to identify them either. So that’s why we did this, we really wanted to understand from the perspective of the young people, the parents, the educators, and First Nations and elders as well. Without giving blame,” she said.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing more than 20 days of school each year.

In the 2019/20 school year an average of 34 per cent of Yukon students missed 20 or more days of school, according to the office’s data. For Yukon First Nation students, the rate was 55 per cent.

Rates of absenteeism were higher in high school and schools located outside of Whitehorse.

Due to COVID-19, attendance data was only collected until March 17, 2020.

The report notes that “for the purposes of this review, it is imperative to note that while the barriers to attendance affecting students are not new, they have largely been amplified by COVID-19.”

The report found that there are many barriers to attending school for children.

Children shared feelings of not belonging in school, avoiding bullying and racism, struggling with mental health issues, limited access to support and being influenced by personal factors like hunger and home instability.

“Children have a right to quality education, and to have an educational program that helps them reach their full potential. You don’t get that when you don’t come to school. But it’s really hard to come to school when you feel shame and blame,” said King. “It’s really hard to send your child to school when you don’t trust that it’s a safe place for your child.”

High rates of absenteeism

According to data from the department of education, 3,151 students missed more than 20 days of school at least once in the past three years. Of those students, the majority continued to miss classes year after year.

Around 225 students missed over 80 days of school in one year.

One anonymous Grade 10 student who had a student support plan said “nobody knew anything about that and it’s so frustrating” while a Grade 11 student explained that “counsellors don’t have qualifications to work with First Nation kids; they don’t understand our cultural values.”

One 12-year-old shared that it “feels like [I] am always doing wrong and feeling bad.”

Teachers also felt that they were being asked to do too much, with too few resources.

“They need more resources and support because we expect a lot out of them,” said King. “And I expect even more. I expect them to connect with those kids that aren’t showing up.”

Many parents, elders and administrators also mentioned the importance of integrating the broader community into the school.

The report includes a look forward at what could work in schools, including “wrap-around solutions” such as in-school meal programs, culturally sensitive teaching, more mental health supports in schools and working with First Nations to have culture camps and family learning count for academic credit.

King said the report on missed classes is a readable companion to the recently released final report of the review of inclusive and special education. She said the Yukon Child and Youth Advocate has delivered the report to the government and will be following up for next steps.

Contact Haley Ritchie at