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Nunavut News editorial: Low school attendance rate in Nunavut harming children’s futures

It’s that time of year: there may well be moans and groans from the teenager in your home or perhaps there’s heightened excitement among the younger members of the household.

It’s that time of year: there may well be moans and groans from the teenager in your home or perhaps there’s heightened excitement among the younger members of the household.

It’s because they’re going back to school.

Registration is taking place at learning institutions across the territory – with COVID-19 protocols in place, of course.

We’re hoping for a full year of in-class learning. The bewildering home schooling and hybrid models of the past year left something to be desired, particularly in the early months when students were unable to attend school due to pandemic lockdowns.

But what really matters is that our young ones are making a genuine effort to learn. Showing up matters.

Attendance rates at Nunavut’s schools were 76.5 per cent prior to COVID-19, and then fell to an even more alarming 64.8 per cent in 2020-21, according to Education Minister David Joanasie.

In the neighbouring Northwest Territories, the Department of Education has issued this eye-opening statement: “80 per cent attendance is very concerning. It is the same as missing one full school day per week. At that rate, by Grade 4 the average student has already missed half a year of school. By grade 10, they have missed two full years. Non-attendance is clearly an urgent concern.”

In Nunavut, poor attendance rates are a longstanding issue.

In 2009-10, there was only 70.8 per cent of students in school throughout the year.

In 2001-2002, it was 74.5 per cent.

There’s a great deal of academic harm in those figures.

Much time and thought have been devoted to why so many children are not showing up at school. Perhaps some parents or grandparents who had such negative experiences at residential school aren’t inclined to force their offspring to partake today. That connection to a traumatic past can be strong, but the education system has advanced in many positive ways. Most district education authorities are largely comprised of Inuit community members who set policy. More Inuit educators are taking positions in schools. Classroom content for those in kindergarten through Grade 3 is more reflective of the Inuit culture and Inuktitut throughout the year.

Another factor that is often cited in low attendance rates is bullying at school. Its tentacles have stretched into the online realm, too. Many teachers, classroom assistant, principals and guidance counsellors have addressed this issue over and over. Parents have done the same. While bullying is common among youths, it should always be nipped in the bud by any adult who bears witness. Lessons in compassion are necessary.

Of course there can be other isolated barriers, such as school bus service not operating during winter cold snaps, so some children walk to school, or get a ride from Mom or Dad, while other students don’t.

Arviat North-Whale Cove MLA John Main suggested in 2019 that the Government of Nunavut should consider cash incentives to ensure that chairs are filled in classrooms.

That idea led to an outburst from the public, both positive and negative.

Innovative solutions are required because this attendance problem is seriously undermining futures. There are numerous students who are meeting with success across Nunavut, such as Jose Kusugak scholarship recipients Angela Mukyungnik and Jenna Kilabuk-Qaqqasiq, both on a journey to become educators.

The territory needs more stories of achievers like them – as well as tradespeople, nurses, lawyers, administrators and other professionals – but for students who seldom show up, the future won’t be nearly as bright.