Sask Rivers begins awareness campaign to stop falling attendance rates

Sask Rivers graphic A sample of the graphics used by the Saskatchewan Rivers School Division in their attendance social media campaign..

The Saskatchewan Rivers Public School Division has launched a new social media campaign to encourage school attendance following concerns about falling rates.

Attendance is just one item the social media campaign touches on, but education director Robert Bratvold said it’s an important one. Bratvold said they’ve been monitoring attendance from the beginning of the year, and recent figures have them concerned.

“We use evidence-based decisions and we looked at our attendance and it just reveals that we have got some work to do to help parents understand the importance of attendance and make sure that we have students in class when they need to be,” he explained.

The absentee rate due to illness sits at around 12 per cent in the Prince Albert area, according to statistics released by the Community Respiratory Illness Surveillance Program (CRISP) on Thursday.

However, Bratvold said illness is not a factor in the number of absentees they’re seeing. Instead, habits from the COVID-19 pandemic have seemingly carried over.

“It was necessary for students to be absent for periods of time and for classes to actually be closed for periods of time during the intensity of the pandemic,” he said. “We need to have a restart, a fresh start, for making sure people are coming to school as much as they need to.”

SRSC rural trustee Desiree Zacharias brought up her own concerns about attendance at a recent meeting. The Sask. Rivers Students for Change (SRSC) group has also voiced concerns about attendance as well.

Bratvold said they have anecdotal evidence from teachers and staff saying absentee rates are becoming a concern, but to hear it from the SRSC too shows even more concern.

“To be absent when they (students) are ill, that’s real and necessary, but then the counterpart of that is that they are noticing their peers also being absent lots too,” he said. “(It’s important to) make sure we are only absent when we absolutely have to be absent and make sure that we are there because there is lots of learning to do.”

There are a number of reasons falling attendance is cause for concern. The biggest is that missed time can lead to large learning losses, something the Sask. Rivers social media campaign emphasizes.

“The other thing is, there is sort of a mentality or a philosophy that, ‘well, my kid has to be away for the orthodontist or they have got a medical appointment,’ and they do, that’s right. But that means to make sure they are not missing necessarily because all of the absenteeism adds up and you miss out on instruction.”

The division is also reviewing their own attendance policies and procedures to address the problem.

“There are just enormous numbers of research that show the benefit of regular attendance and the challenges of poor or event erratic attendance,” Bratvold said. “Think about it as momentum. If you are in the learning zone (then) you have habits and a routine and the learning proceeds. If you interrupt that, it makes it more difficult to resume. If you interrupt it more frequently it gets more and more difficult. Good attendance is just essential in so many ways.”

Along with the social media campaign, the division is doing communications through schools, along with principals and teachers.

“We provided a folder full of resources for our schools around attendance. It’s got some talking points, some research data. It’s got a whole variety of resources,” Bratvold said.

They are also putting together an Attendance Coalition a collection of senior administration, teachers and students and a hope to add community partners in the future.

“This really needs to be a community effort, to make sure I’m getting my kids to school on time and regularly and I hope that my neighbours see the importance of that as well,” he said.

The campaign really began to ramp up after the Christmas break.

When students are absent too often, school officials will send a letter to the students’ family. Bratvold said they try not to be harsh, but the division needs to be intentional in letting parents know it’s a problem.

“(We are) trying not to be harsh and draconian because there are times when kids need to be away from school. That is very real we don’t want parents to feel guilty or attacked for that,” he explained. “But, we also want to encourage them to recognize the importance of attendance, so that will be a letter going home or phone calls or those sorts of things.”

Bratvold said research into parent attitudes about absenteeism student absenteeism show parents have a different perception of what’s happening. When asked how many days their children missed, parents will often give a lower number than the actual amount.

“If you ask a parent ‘what days did your kid miss last month’ they might say well I think they missed three or four days. The reality would say their kid probably missed six or eight days,” he said.

“As a parent I think, ‘okay I had to take my kid to the dentist so they were gone for most of that morning. but that doesn’t really count. Well, yes, it does because they missed all of that morning.”

Bratvold said they want the social media campaign to support, encourage and inform parents without being overbearing. They want to communicate their concerns the same way they do in school: with warmth.

“It’s really helpful and I hope that people are interested,” Bratvold said of the campaign. “I hope it also will inspire some response and some careful attention from families, neighbourhood groups, and those sorts of things, to make sure people are getting their kids to school.”

As part of the social media campaign, schools in the division are sharing graphics on Facebook. Those graphics have been picked up and used by surrounding school divisions, like the North East School Division.

“That’s a positive thing too,” Bratvold said. “We have some strong affinity to our students in our own division, absolutely, but if we can help others across the province and the country making sure they see the importance of attendance too then that’s a benefit.”