More than 300 Ontario schools reported staff and student absences of more than 30 per cent by the end of last week, after students returned for in−person learning following the latest pandemic−related shutdown.
But the data includes all absences, not just those that might be related to COVID−19, making it tough to gauge the impact of the Omicron variant on Ontario’s school system now that the province is no longer publicly reporting cases in schools.
Some schools reported high absences due to the weather or technical errors. Data was also missing for about 1,400 of the province’s 4,844 schools.
The province has said families will be notified once 30 per cent of students and staff in a school are absent.
Data published Monday show 337 schools had hit that mark as of Friday and 111 schools reported absences higher than 50 per cent of all staff and students.
Absence information was made available for 3,451 of the province’s schools.
Twenty−one schools reported absences higher than 80 per cent. Schools with the 10 highest absence percentages included one in Toronto, three in North Bay, two in Parry Sound and one each in Kenora, Sturgeon Falls and South River.
However, five of those reported high levels of absences because of the weather, according to a spokeswoman for the Near North District School Board.
Deb Bartlett said in a statement that all buses were cancelled on Friday due to the cold, driving up the absence numbers because “the vast majority” of students ride the bus to school. She noted that buses were cancelled again due to the weather on Monday, but schools weren’t closed on either of those two days.
The Simcoe County District School Board reported only one school with an absenteeism rate of more than 30 per cent, and that was Simcoe Shores Secondary School in Barrie. Several schools with the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board had absences of 28 per cent, but none reached the 30 per cent threshold.
The province reported that 16 schools or 0.3 per cent were closed as of Friday.
Meanwhile, one school in the Niagara Catholic District School Board had initially reported 100 per cent of its population absent on Friday, but a spokeswoman for the board later clarified that it was included in error because the school had actually been closed for a professional development day. Jennifer Pellegrini said board schools were open on Monday.
Premier Doug Ford’s government closed schools for two weeks earlier this month amid rapid spread of the Omicron variant, which has placed a strain on the province’s healthcare system and labour force.
Ford said at the time that the province couldn’t guarantee schools could be kept open given the high levels of Omicron spread that would likely leave many people unable to work due to infections or exposures.
Unions have warned families to prepare for disruptions related to the virus, and provincial officials have said schools may have to move classes online for days at a time to accommodate staffing challenges.
On Monday, it was unclear exactly what factors were behind the absence data, especially after a week of snowy winter weather that prompted many boards to cancel bus routes, close schools or move classes online.
Schools in Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa areas, for example, delayed their return to in−person classes last week after a severe winter storm dumped snow across the regions. Several schools stayed closed due to the continued cleanup from the storm later into the week.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 24, 2022.
Holly McKenzie- Sutter, The Canadian Press
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