More than one out of every five pupils and staff members were absent from Toronto’s public schools, highlighting the difficulty of sustaining in-person learning in the face of the Omicron variant’s rapid spread, on Friday.
The numbers are the first look at school-by-school absentee rates since the outbreak began, and basically replace the Ministry of Education’s daily notifications on positive COVID-19 cases among students and employees.
According to the report, the average absence rate for the 497 public schools in Toronto that filed information to a ministry portal for Friday was 20.70 percent.
The city’s largest school board – the TDSB – reported an average absence rate of 22.88 per cent – while the absence rate in the TCDSB was 14.51 per cent.
While the data includes all absences and is not necessarily a reflection of the number of COVID-19 cases associated with any one school, it does point to significant disruptions to in-person learning just as students were returning to the classroom for the first time in approximately a month.
There were a total of 70 schools in Toronto reporting an absentee rate above 30 per cent on Friday, including 17 with an absence rate north of 40 per cent.
At some schools, such as Forest Hill Collegiate Institute (48.7 per cent) and Yorkdale Secondary School (46.6) nearly half of all students and staff were absent for various reasons on Friday.
The province has said that parents will only be directly notified once a school hits a 30 per cent absentee rate above baseline attendance and that closures can only be considered, and not necessarily implemented, at that time.
The Toronto school boards will still inform impacted classes of any positive case of COVID-19 that they become aware of but that level of disclosure is no longer required by the province.
In the place of reliable information on positive cases in the classroom, the ministry has pledged to make the school-by-school absence data available each weekday for the previous day. The data will be uploaded by 10:30 a.m.
“During a period of uncertainty around the world we want parents to have greater knowledge about the rates of absenteeism in their schools,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said during a photo-op at a vaccine clinic in Markham on Monday morning. “This ensures parents have daily access of rates of absenteeism. It also allows families with the use of rapid tests layered into that knowledge, the ability to take immediate action at home should their child be symptomatic. All of this, including the enhancements to our PPE, the accelerated access to boosters, it is all designed to support in-class learning and reduce risk.”
There were as many as 72 Ontario schools that were closed due to the pandemic at one point in December but with school-aged children and educational workers no longer included amongst those eligible for government-funded PCR testing, there are likely to be fewer confirmed outbreaks in the coming weeks and months as the province shifts focus to preventing severe cases, rather than infection itself.
The ministry says that as of Friday there were a total of 16 Ontario schools closed for reasons related to the pandemic, a category which includes operational considerations like staffing shortages.
When asked about concerns parents may have about extremely high absence rates at some schools, Lecce said on Monday, “We encourage families to continue to follow the leadership and advice of their local public health unit, who are working very hard to support in-person learning and keep it as safe as possible.” “Please use the millions of fast tests we offered you, and continue to implement a very strict screening regimen every morning before a child or staff member enters a school,” she said. We can lower the danger and establish confidence that these settings are as safe as feasible if we accomplish all of these things.”