More than 100 Ontario schools reported staff and student absence rates of more than 50 per cent by the end of last week after students returned to in-person learning.
The reports came from new data published by the Ontario education ministry on Monday.
A total of 337 schools had reached an absence rate of 30 per cent as of Friday and 111 schools reported absences of higher than 50 per cent for all staff and students, the data shows.
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.
The web page includes a searchable database that families can use to see combined absence rates for schools in their area.
Most of the province’s students returned to schools for in-person classes last Monday, after a two-week period of virtual learning after the winter break that was implemented as COVID-19 cases linked to the Omicron variant surged at unprecedented levels.
Boards are no longer required to share information about COVID-19 infections in schools. Rather, families will be notified when the combined staff and student absence rate tops 30 per cent, regardless of whether the absences are specifically linked to the virus.
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.
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 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 of COVID-19, 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.
More than 11,000 Ontarians have died with COVID-19
Meanwhile, Ontario reported Monday there were 615 patients with COVID-19 in intensive care units, as the cumulative number of cases of the illness throughout the pandemic in the province surpassed one million.
There have been 1,001,455 cases of COVID-19 in Ontario since the first was officially confirmed on Jan. 25, 2020, according to the Ministry of Health.
Slightly more than 92 per cent of those infections are considered resolved, while at least 65,504 are active. Because the province restricted PCR testing to only the most high risk instances and settings earlier this month, it is impossible to say with certainty how many cases are actually ongoing.
Of the 615 patients in ICUs, 372 — or just more than 60 per cent — needed the help of a ventilator to breathe, the health ministry said.
At the time of publication, the province had not yet updated its ICU data to include how many of those patients were admitted because of COVID-19, and how many tested while in critical care for other reasons.
The Ministry of Health also reported the deaths of 37 more people with COVID-19, pushing the official toll to 11,004.