Ontario schools to keep reporting absences until end of June

The provincial government says schools will continue to publicly report student and staff absences until the end of June, as well as any school closings.

Just last month, the province had only committed to keep reporting until at least April 14.

The news comes as a Toronto Catholic elementary school has reported between 10 and 16 COVID cases a day since the start of the month — although just two new cases on Thursday and again Friday.

The board is sending out letters to students where a COVID case has been confirmed in a classmate or staff member, but “at this time, classes are not being dismissed” at any schools, said Shazia Vlahos, chief of communications and government relations for the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

And on the advice of local public health, it is now “strongly recommending that students and staff in the (affected) classroom wear a mask for the next 10 days as a precaution” when they have been exposed at school, she said.

Representatives from the Ministry of Labor were at St. Brendan Catholic School in Scarborough, located on Centennial Rd near Lawrence Ave. E. for a “pro-active inspection” on Friday, said ministry spokesperson Kalem McSween.

Julie Altomare-Di Nunzio, president of the Toronto Elementary Catholic Teachers, said she is concerned about the number of COVID cases in schools.

Given the surge in cases in the community, both Catholic and public teacher unions have been urging the province to resume mask mandates in schools to help curb transmission in classrooms.

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation sent a letter to Education Minister Stephen Lecce on Thursday, calling the end of required face coverings in schools “ill advised, and premature.”

“It should now be obvious that the pandemic is most definitely not over, and mask mandates and other safety measures are still required to ensure students, teachers, education workers, and school communities are protected, despite the lifting of pandemic related health restrictions in the broader community,” said the letter from president Karen Littlewood.

Since January, the government has reported daily staff and student absence rates at the province’s 4,844 schools. Because schools report absences for all reasons, including those due to medical appointment, religious holiday or vacation, it’s impossible to determine how many are due to COVID.

Neither Toronto’s public nor Catholic school boards have closed a school since January. Since then, 123 different schools with the Toronto District School Board and 12 of the city’s Catholic schools have had absentee rates above 30 per cent.

Public health units are notified when absence rates among staff and students hit 30 per cent above its baseline.

That triggers a joint letter, from the health unit and school, to parents reminding them of important mitigation measures, such as vaccination, daily COVID-19 screening, wearing a well-fitted mask and the importance of keeping kids home when sick.

Soaring COVID cases means some schools are grappling with replacing sick teachers. This week, a Peel District School Board spokesperson said it hasn’t seen an increase in the number of schools hitting a 30 per cent absence threshold, but has noticed “an increase in the number of classes that are moving temporarily online due to staff becoming positive.”

“Various factors can influence absence numbers, which may cause the numbers to change from day to day,” said Malon Edwards, noting that on Friday, nine elementary and one secondary classes temporarily moved to online learning. Since January, the board hasn’t closed a school.

The York Region District School Board has also moved classes online because replacements couldn’t be found for an absent teacher. For instance, on Thursday and Friday, three classrooms were remote, but all schools remained open.

With files from Andrew Bailey, data analyst

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