MONTREAL -- The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted all kinds of inequalities among Quebec students -- and even worsened them.

Students are experiencing a lack of access to the internet and psychosocial services and are being tempted to go work to help the family when parents have lost their jobs. Organizations that try to encourage students not to drop out are urging the government to act before having to share statistics on school failures.

This Wednesday marks the second edition of the “Journee de Refus de l’Echec Scolaire,” dedicated to keeping students from dropping out. This year, it’s being carried out under a theme of equality and aims to highlight the problems students face that play a role in them dropping out: poverty, a lack of access to the internet and support resources, and the medicalization of young people's learning difficulties.

The school year has barely started, but the 56 community dropout organizations in Quebec are already seeing the damage caused by the pandemic.

Internet access has been a massive barrier: when schools had to close, many provided lessons online – which was also how teachers reached students to make sure they were okay. Organizations estimate that 54,700 households with at least one child aged 15 and under do not have high-speed internet in Quebec. 

Some parents with less education could not help their children navigate the web. A single mother who holds two jobs and has three children in different grades, for example, would not have the time to help them with homework or online education, said Samuel Carrier, the director general of “Je Passe-Partout,” an organization that works to limit school dropouts. 

When schools closed, students no longer had access to the professionals who helped them, like remedial teachers. Privileged families were able to turn to the private sector, but not others.

Thousands of young people have therefore been deprived of educational resources, said Mélanie Marsolais, executive director of the Regroupement des organisms communautaires Quebecois de lute au decrochage (ROCLD), an unmbrella organization that fights against dropping out.

“The pandemic has been hard on everyone, but it has been worse for them,” she said.

The risk of dropping out is very present – “they know they are late,” Carrier said. “They had less supervision and are returning to a context that is not easy.”

Many young people do not feel ready for the start of the school year.

“We saw a lot of differences in the level of knowledge when we went back to school this fall,” he added, which has an impact on students’ perception of their own worth, which in turn impacts their academic success.

On the ground, workers note that young people have left school to enter the labour market and help their parents.

“Perseverance is really an issue,” said Carrier.


“The last few months have been critical for thousands of young Quebecers who, regrettably, will pay the price for many injustices in our education system,” Marsolais said.

She believes the difficulties they encountered exceed all the perseverance and individual will of young people, parents and school teams.

She doesn't want young people to feel alone and to carry the weight of failure on their shoulders: it's not just a question of motivation and determination, she said. There are young people who have not had the support they are entitled to.

Currently, the community organizations that help them are overflowing.

“Usually it happens later in the year,” she said.

They give their all, just like the teachers who take care of them, Marsolais added. But many are already exhausted, and school has only been running for three weeks.

To reduce the inequality of opportunities for students in Quebec, she suggests several solutions: to fight against poverty and to stop placing young people in separate classes depending on their performance and socioeconomic status.

It’s also important to ensure that all young people have access to a digital devices connected to high speed internet. Marsolais also suggests ensuring free and universal access to psychosocial support services – rather than medication – for all young people. 

Marsolais and Carrier would like to highlight several government initiatives that have done good: the purchase and distribution of tablets for students who did not have them, and, at the start of the school year, internet access keys, as well as the return of food aid programs to schools.

- This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2020.