It was demanded by teachers and promised by the government, but Nova Scotia’s new provincial attendance policy is not in place as students head back to school.
In April, the 14-member Council to Improve Classroom Conditions released a draft version of the policy, saying it had “teeth” to help teachers and principals deal with chronic absences.
The policy was supposed to be finalized in June and implemented by the beginning of this school year. It’s not clear why that hasn’t happened.
“The attendance policy in the last few years of my career was all over the place,” said Progressive Conservative Education Critic Tim Halman.
Halman was a high school teacher before being elected in Dartmouth East in May. He says an attendance policy needs to hold students accountable and make school “as attractive as possible” for students.
“Why is it in this province, some students can miss up to 60 or 70 per cent of their high school classes, yet they're still permitted to stay in those classes?” Halman said. “This government needs to show some leadership. They made a commitment to parents and guardians of this province to have a reformed attendance policy in place and they haven't fulfilled that.”
The government has said that around 30 per cent of students missed 16 or more school days in 2014-15. The draft attendance policy is aimed at setting up interventions for students who miss more than 10 per cent of the 195 school days.
During the bitter contract dispute between the province and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, NSTU president Liette Doucet said a provincial attendance policy would go a long way toward building trust with teachers.
The government says it still intends to have a policy in place this fall. Education Minister Zach Churchill is meeting with the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions this week.
“It was decided amongst the partners, including the union, administrators, and the teachers council and the department to hold off on releasing the policy until we had the implementation plan and I’m happy to say that we are in the process of finalizing the whole package and we’re hoping to be able to announce that next week,” Churchill said.
When asked why the policy was not in place by the beginning of this school year, Churchill said the department “wanted to make sure we got it done right.”
“I think we have found a policy position that really reflects a balance in trying to ensure that we are prioritizing participation in the classroom for our kids, so that our kids and families know that being in the class is important, but also ensuring that families are empowered to make decisions on their own with how their children spend their time,” Churchill said. “And I think we have achieved that balance.”
The draft policy defines excused and unexcused absences and calls for a staged approach for chronic absences, involving the potential loss of credits for high school courses, as well as incentives to encourage attendance. Students who are missing more than 15 per cent of classes may be connected with supports from outside agencies.
The flexibility to deal with students on an individual basis is something that C.P. Allen High School teacher Paul Wozney applauds. He says the underlying causes of chronic absences are complex.
“It’s really disheartening when you’re a teacher and you have a student who sometimes can’t attend for reasons beyond their control,” he said.
Wozney says he’s not as concerned with the timing of the policy as its contents. He worries it may end up adding to the workload of classroom teachers, especially if other supports are not in place within schools.
“The guidance counsellors, the school psychologists, all those kinds of people that are in short supply – put those kind of people to work so that schools can actually do a good job in supporting students that desperately need it,” he said.
Halman says Nova Scotia teachers have not forgotten the bitter contract dispute last winter.
“Many of them feel that the issues they raised last winter are being completely ignored,” he said.
The Nova Scotia Teachers Union declined to comment on the matter.