Viruses raise absenteeism rates in schools across city

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Virtual assemblies for Remembrance Day and other holidays have yet to disappear from Winnipeg schools, as COVID-19 remains a concern, along with other illnesses that have made their way into classrooms.

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Virtual assemblies for Remembrance Day and other holidays have yet to disappear from Winnipeg schools, as COVID-19 remains a concern, along with other illnesses that have made their way into classrooms.

Yet K-12 leaders are committed to rebuilding a sense of community in their schools.

“Our absenteeism rate has just passed 10 per cent… In the community, there is an increase in influenza, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), and COVID-19, among other illnesses,” states a bulletin from École Van Walleghem School.

Absenteeism at École Van Walleghem School has just passed 10 per cent, according to a bulletin sent to parents. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press files)

On Wednesday, principal Sharon Labossiere and vice-principal Carrie Lourenzo informed families the K-8 building would host its Remembrance Day service via videoconferencing platform Microsoft Teams again this year.

The letter signed by the duo encouraged students, their families and employees to stay home when ill, increase handwashing, practise respiratory etiquette — covering coughs and sneezes — and wear masks to reduce the spread of infection.

Lauren Hope, a parent at the dual-track school, applauded the administrators for their “incredible leadership” in deciding to move the commemorative event online.

The Pembina Trails School Division’s long-standing policy on communicable diseases states “it is prudent” to alert a local public health nurse when absenteeism due to illness is greater than 10 per cent of the entire pupil population on any given day.

A founding member of Safe September MB, Hope has been vocal about her criticism that schools have not done enough to protect families, especially immunocompromised community members, throughout the pandemic.

Hope’s youngest child recently tested positive for the virus; the mother said she is certain her son contracted COVID-19 on Halloween after a brief unmasked gathering at a friend’s house after trick-or-treating.

Manitoba’s autumn respiratory surveillance reports have shown growing numbers of lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases and related hospital admissions, as well as increasing levels of the virus in wastewater.

Hope said she is frustrated members of the public have seemingly given up on rapid testing if they have symptoms, while leaders are not being responsive to the reports or crowded hospital wards.

“I am seeing parents try to crowdsource fever-reducing medicine and painkillers because you can’t find them right now. These are scary times, so if we can reduce that risk for everyone (with masking), why aren’t we doing it?” she said, calling it “so, so depressing” that many of her educator colleagues ditched face coverings when they became optional.

Face coverings have been optional in Winnipeg classrooms and indoor public spaces since March 15, when the province lifted virtually all COVID-19-related mandates and measures across society.

A mix of in-person and virtual events has been underway in the Louis Riel School Division in the leadup to Nov. 11.

The division in southeast Winnipeg is the only metro-area district that publicly posts sick day data.

On Nov. 9, 0.35 per cent of the student population self-reported being away from school because of virus symptoms, or a positive case or close-contact exposure. The overall student absence rate was about 16 per cent.

Since the start of 2022, those figures reached respective peaks of nearly five per cent on Jan. 21 and 37 per cent on Feb. 2.

Manitoba Education does not have specific thresholds related to school absenteeism rates and administrative disclosures.

A department spokesperson said in an email that schools have the best understanding of their own rates and are encouraged to contact public health officials at their discretion.

Both Seven Oaks and St. James-Assiniboia school divisions confirmed they will host traditional in-person Remembrance Day services this week.

Seven Oaks superintendent Brian O’Leary said current absenteeism rates in the district are higher than they were pre-COVID-19, but lower than they were in the spring.

O’Leary indicated school leaders in the northwest corner of the city rely mainly on family explanations for absences to gauge whether they should alert authorities.

Lisa Boles, superintendent of Pembina Trails, said all principals in the southwest division — including the team at Van Walleghem — monitor attendance.

They are in contact with senior administration and public health “as needed,” Boles said in an email statement.

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.

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