Why the COVID-19 pandemic has TDSB searching for thousands of absent students — and possibly $42M

·5 min read

Thousands of children appear to have fallen off the Toronto District School Board's radar in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic — and the board's budget is taking a serious hit because of it, board staff say in a new report.

A meeting of the TDSB's finance committee last week was told it will be short about $42 million in provincial government funding this school year. That's because boards are funded per pupil, and far fewer children have shown up for class this fall compared to last, the report states.

TDSB chair Alexander Brown told CBC Toronto about 5,500 students who had been expected back this fall — either online or in class — are unaccounted for as of October. That number includes about 800 high school students and roughly 4,700 elementary school kids, Brown said.

Tina Mackenzie/CBC
Tina Mackenzie/CBC

According to the TDSB's website, there are normally about 255,000 children enrolled, and its annual operating budget is $3.4 billion.

Brown said board staff are working to find out what's become of the missing students.

"Hopefully, we'll know where all those kids are by mid-November to the end of November," he said.

Of the missing elementary school-aged students, about 2,100 had been registered for junior or senior kindergarten classes this school year, which officially started in September.

TDSB appealing to province to let it keep $42M

Those youngsters do not legally need to be in school under Ontario law, he said, but any child six or older has to be enrolled in an approved learning environment, whether it's in-class or online. Parents are supposed to inform the board in writing if they plan to pull previously enrolled children out of the TDSB and homeschool them.

What, if any, schooling the missing students are receiving "is a concern," he said.

"Obviously, we need to find out. There were a lot of kids in our system for the first couple of weeks of school that didn't have teachers, so it's been a hard year and we have to still work on it to get it right."

Keith Whelan/CBC
Keith Whelan/CBC

Although board staff are in the midst of the painstaking task of tracking down the parents of all 5,500 no-shows, Brown said the TDSB probably won't know exactly how they're being schooled until December.

In the meantime, he said the board has appealed to the province to allow it to keep the $42 million per-pupil funding allotment that's at risk because of the missing students.

Brown said he believes some of those students are being home-schooled informally by their parents, while others have likely switched to the Toronto Catholic District School Board or private schools..

Tina McKenzie/CBC
Tina McKenzie/CBC

Several parents contacted by CBC Toronto said they'd pulled their kids from the TDSB this school year because of health concerns brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak. Others said they felt the board was too disorganized in launching the 2020-2021 school year.

Vince Gerrie pulled his two sons from their TDSB schools in Leaside and enrolled them in a private online school, which is costing about $1,200 a month.

'Had to become teachers'

"My wife and I both have very demanding careers and in March when the lockdown happened, it was a very difficult time for us. Not only were we dealing with how COVID was affecting our businesses, but we also had to become teachers," he said.

"And as the school year was approaching rapidly, you could anticipate that the COVID case counts were going to go up...If the kids did attend in person, is the school going to get shut down or are they going to get sick? We wanted to make a decision where we actually knew what was happening and we could control our circumstances."

He said his sons, 10-year-old Jasper, and Sebastian, 13, have thrived in their new learning environment — so much so that he's considering leaving them in the online private school even after the pandemic is under control.

Mom Ashley O'Rourke, of Scarborough, said safety was her motivator.

Her son Max had been registered to start junior kindergarten this fall. But he recently underwent a liver transplant, and doctors at the Hospital for Sick Children advised her that the pandemic posed a serious health threat should he attend school.

She instead planned to have him take part online, but quickly learned that was not a viable option.

"We did about two weeks and the teacher was excellent," she said. "But having a three-year-old sit in front of a computer for four-and-a-half hours a day, which is the recommended time, was just not possible for us.

"He was getting distracted, and ... at minimum, I figured I could be more effective with him one-on-one for an hour than it would probably be in front of the computer."

Brown said the board will present the province with an updated budget proposal in December, at which time he'll have a more exact enrolment number. Whatever that number is, though, Brown said he wants the province to assure the board that it won't cancel the $42 million that the board would be getting, if not for the missing students.

"We are going to push hard and advocate for that money," he said. "It's always a shell game in this province in a regular year. COVID just exacerbates this to the nth degree."