Respiratory diseases are creating a revolving door of disruptions to regular attendance and lesson planning in Manitoba schools — making it all but impossible to return to pre-pandemic operations and deliver consistent, high-quality instruction.

School administrators have been fielding a growing number of sick calls related to runny noses and fevers from both caregivers and education workers in recent weeks.

Grade 6 student Scarlett Schadek has missed two weeks in the last month, owing to a positive rapid antigen COVID-19 test and more recently, a cold.

“I have to catch up on a lot of work… and I’m a bit behind everybody, but I’m working really hard to catch up,” Scarlett said, during an interview after the final bell Tuesday.

The 11-year-old returned to École Howden in Winnipeg in a disposable blue medical mask at the start of the week, and voiced her concerns about the lack of mask use in schools in a recent Free Press letter to the editor.

While her parents were not convinced face coverings would be all that effective if she and her brother were surrounded by unmasked peers for six hours a day at the start of 2022-23, a surge in sickness in society has prompted the family to take extra precautions.

An average of 18 per cent of all pupils in the Louis Riel School Division have been away on a daily basis to date in November. That figure is about 14 per cent among staff members in the Winnipeg district, the only one of its kind that publishes absenteeism data.

In the school years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, between 2016 and 2019, the division’s average student nonattendance rate in the entire month of November was seven per cent. It was about 12 per cent in November 2020. Last fall, it was 10 per cent.

Domanie Billinghurst-Schadek called the numbers “alarming” and urged school and provincial officials to take action to curb transmission levels, especially given pediatricians and pharmacists are overwhelmed with sick patients.

“This is the beginning of a very trying time to be a parent. I think it’s going to be a really long winter, in terms of illnesses,” said Billinghurst-Schadek, who has two school-aged students.

Absenteeism due to illness that surpasses 10 per cent of an entire school’s pupil population on any given day justifies an alert to public health officials, per a policy on communicable diseases in the Pembina Trails School Division.

Leaders in all other metro divisions have indicated there is no universal figure that sparks concern in their specific communities, and they are constantly monitoring nonattendance.

Over the weekend, the St. James-Assiniboia School Division alerted families about a general increase in respiratory viruses — namely influenza, COVID-19 and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) — circulating in its K-12 buildings.

“Schools have renewed their efforts to remind students to wash their hands and stay home when sick,” states a Nov. 20 social media post.

One Winnipeg teacher reported half of the employees at her high school were away Nov. 18, and ongoing illness in her community is creating “a gong show.”

OVERSET FOLLOWS:“People are here today that probably shouldn’t be. Everyone is realizing we should be masking up. Last week, I had on average 10 (out of) 25 kids missing from each class,” the teacher, who was not authorized to speak to a reporter, said in a text Tuesday.

A chronic substitute teacher shortage has long been an issue in rural schools, but it has only recently become a concern in the Manitoba capital. Given COVID-19-related funds have been spent, divisions also have fewer resources to create supply jobs and hire long-term substitutes this year.

“Pre-pandemic, I don’t think we would ever have imagined absenteeism rates across the system like we’re seeing,” said James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society.

Bedford acknowledged there are always absences in a school year, but the spike in unplanned days off and scattered nonattendance is particularly troubling because it’s incredibly challenging for teachers to keep track of individual learning losses.

“The reality is teachers are just going to be putting in a lot of extra hours to make sure that the learning of their students is staying on track,” the union leader said.

Principals, specialty teachers and other colleagues have been filling-in when there is no other coverage option. Sometimes, a quick absence fix requires a teacher to miss a prep period.

The Winnipeg Teachers’ Association has started requesting members report failure-to-fill scenarios and disclose makeshift solutions, which can range from the cancellation of a music or phys-ed program so a specialist can provide coverage to splitting an affected class into small groups to join other classes temporarily.

K-12 community members are encouraged to get immunized, stay home when ill, practise hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, and “take additional precautions based on their individual risk assessment,” according to a spokesperson for Manitoba Education.

“School officials know their communities best,” the spokesperson wrote in an email, in which they indicated administrators should reach out to authorities if they see worrying nonattendance levels.

The department did not provide a list of schools that have issued notices or implemented special measures in 2022-23 due to unusually high absenteeism.

On a recent school day, Billinghurst-Schadek said her children’s vice-principal was running around to cover classrooms because there were not enough teachers and the absence of a music educator resulted in an episode of The Magic School Bus being screened during a Grade 4 period.

The mother of two said she feels powerless at present, and hopes masks become mandated once again — and if not, at the very least, school employees start modelling the importance of protecting others with face covering usage.

As far as she is concerned, learning loss is worsening because children do not have consistent instruction and they are spending significant periods at home sick without energy to do homework or the option to participate in remote programming.

École Van Walleghem School alerted parents the K-8 building’s absenteeism rate had surpassed 10 per cent earlier this month, and shifted its Remembrance Day service to an online format.

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Nov 22, 2022

This item reprinted with permission from   Free Press   Winnipeg, Manitoba

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