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More than one out of five students and staff at Toronto public schools were absent on Friday

More than one out of five students and staff were absent from Toronto’s public schools on Friday, underscoring the challenge associated with continuing in-person learning amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

The figures provide the first look at school-by-school absentee rates since the start of the pandemic and effectively replace the daily reports on positive COVID-19 cases in student and staff that the Ministry of Education previously provided.

The data shows that among 497 public schools in Toronto that uploaded information to a ministry portal for Friday the average absence rate was 20.70 per cent.

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 of data available each weekday for the previous day. The data will be uploaded by 10:30 am

“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 clinic in Markham on Monday morning vaccine. “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.

“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 keeping it as safe as possible,” Lecce said on Monday when asked about concerns parents might have about extremely high absence rates at some schools. “Please use the millions of rapid tests we provided to you and of course continue to apply a very stringent screening program every morning before a child or staff members go into a school. If we do all these things we will reduce the risk and we can build confidence that these settings are as safe as possible.”

Elsewhere in the GTA on Friday public schools reported an average absence rate of 14.55 per cent.

The absence rate in the Peel District School Board was 19.38 per cent while the Durham District School Board reported an absence rate of 18.55 per cent and the York District School Board reported an absence rate of 13.07 per cent.

It should be noted that the data for some boards appears to be incomplete.

In fact only 20 of the 133 schools within the Durham District School Board reported absentee rates.

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