COVID provided a great learning opportunity for teachers at Portage Collegiate Institute, and it's still holding classes with them concerning absenteeism. The Province of Manitoba has launched a new program to curb student absenteeism following the pandemic that PCI staff have realized is a serious issue. 

Principal Lawrence McKenzie explains that post-pandemic school life has required several efforts to get things back to normal. He notes many things that none of them could have predicted.

"Since schools have returned from COVID, and we're trying to get back to regular classes, we have noticed an uptick in the number of absences of students for many different reasons," notes McKenzie. "With PCI, we've made an effort to reach out to families and we're looking at engaging students and learning in different ways. Some are in-class learning. We've got others that are doing remote. Other students are in part-time programs. I realize that PCI won't be the other only school in the province that'll be like that, so I think the province is trying to be proactive and trying to get students re-engaged in school."

He says school, obviously, means learning, and that, in turn, will increase the number of graduates.

"This is just going to make these individuals better citizens once they're done school and join the workforce," continues McKenzie. "I couldn't give an exact number of what our absenteeism rate is right now, but it is definitely below where we were prior to COVID. There are many different reasons why some students are having some difficulty returning to school."

McKenzie notes the province's program is to try and reengage some of these learners back, so they're back in school and staff can help them.

The province is issuing a video showing students discussing with each other the need to graduate, to make their lives better than what they would otherwise be. Posters have been made available to the schools, but they're still waiting on the actual video that they can implement.

"Because of COVID, we're seeing some gaps in some students' learning," adds McKenzie. "We've got different students that were out for different periods of time. Some of our students were out for very short periods of time, others were out for longer periods of time. Some students were sick. I would say there's that gap in the range of learning that's happened with students that have widened. I know staff are working hard, for lack of better words, to try and catch kids up to where they should be at the different grade levels."

McKenzie says students are slowly re-engaging in different activities in the school, whether it is different clubs or sporting activities. 

"We're also finding, because teachers are working so hard to get kids caught up in stuff like that, that it is hard to find people who are wanting to coach, and to take on all those different extracurricular activities that used to happen pre-COVID, as well," says McKenzie. "I'd say that would be, maybe, something else that has been a consequence of COVID. We still have a lot of people that, when they're sick, are staying away from our buildings. They're making sure that they're feeling healthy before they come back. In a way, I don't think that's a bad thing. If you're sick, it's okay to be at home rather than being at school and spreading germs around to other people. So, I'd say that's something else we've seen from COVID."

He notes the virus has definitely impacted schools to the extent that such efforts are still continuing to be done in a student world that has not yet fully gotten back on its feet again.

"It's definitely affected schools in different ways, but our students and our staff are persevering, and we'll push through this," notes McKenzie. 

McKenzie adds, of course, schools did not have to deal with a pandemic like this in about a century, and they're learning as they go.  

"As the province said, not one strategy is going to work for everybody," explains McKenzie. "We see that with learning with kids. They all learn in different ways. We've just got to look at each family and each student separately, and see what's going to be best for them to try and get them re-engaged."

Considering what they've experienced, McKenzie notes there are some take-always in case they ever face something similar again.

"Our staff is better prepared on how to deal with going remote," adds McKenzie. "We've got the structures in place with our Google Classrooms, Zoom and Google Meet, so that won't be such a steep learning curve of how to reengage students. I think we would have to look at how to try and get devices to those students who need them a little bit quicker. We'll try to reach out to kids more often. I think that there was some disconnect. Something else that we would be trying to do is that, if we went remote learning, we'd get as much FaceTime with the students as possible."

McKenzie says they've learned how important it is for students to feel engaged and connected to their teachers.