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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Island school absence and illness rates continue to rise, but province plans no further action

A Mayne Island school had to shut down due to absences this week

By Brishti Basu
November 30, 2022
Health
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Island school absence and illness rates continue to rise, but province plans no further action

A Mayne Island school had to shut down due to absences this week

By Brishti Basu
Nov 30, 2022
School buses in Saanich. Photo: Brishti Basu / Capital Daily
School buses in Saanich. Photo: Brishti Basu / Capital Daily
Health
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Island school absence and illness rates continue to rise, but province plans no further action

A Mayne Island school had to shut down due to absences this week

By Brishti Basu
November 30, 2022
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Island school absence and illness rates continue to rise, but province plans no further action
School buses in Saanich. Photo: Brishti Basu / Capital Daily

Illnesses and absences among staff and students are straining schools on the Island, but the BC health ministry said there is no threshold at which they would intervene with public health measures.

“From a public health perspective, there is no exact percentage or threshold of school absenteeism that would trigger the re-introduction of any additional infection prevention and control measures,” the health ministry said in a statement to Capital Daily.

Things have gotten worse in Victoria and Vancouver Island schools over the past few weeks, as respiratory illness season leads to rising absences among students, teachers, education assistants, substitute teachers, and other staff.

“Our teachers…are certainly noticing more absenteeism amongst their students, and we've also had quite a number of teachers away sick as well, or away,” said Ilda Turcotte, president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association.

Avery, a Vancouver Island elementary school principal who asked that we change her name because she is not authorized to speak to the media, said one in three students have been out of school on any given day over the past two weeks. That’s up from one in five since she last spoke to Capital Daily at the end of October.

According to Avery, things got worse right after a Remembrance Day event at which all students were gathered together in one place.

“Our sick rate went up the week after quite markedly,” Avery said.

The school has now cancelled an upcoming event that would have seen a similar convergence for two reasons: they don’t want everyone in one space again for fear of more illnesses spreading, and because more than half of the students involved in the event have been absent in the weeks leading up to it.

The ministries of health and education

BC’s Ministry of Education doesn’t appear to be alarmed by current absence rates.

“We have seen a slightly higher rate of student absences through the first months of the school year compared to last year, which differs from district to district, and is not completely reflective of illness in the student population,” a ministry spokesperson wrote in an email to Capital Daily. “The Ministry of Education and Child Care continues to work with school districts and public health officials to monitor the situation in our schools.”

Their evaluation contradicts that of the BC School COVID Tracker—an initiative created by two BC moms to trace the number of school exposures in the province—which is still collecting reports of COVID-19 cases in schools and reporting them on their website.

“School staff are informing us that absence rates are higher than they have ever seen in the 20+ years they have been teaching or working in a school,” the pair wrote in an email to Capital Daily. “Of the remaining students attending, they say many are being sent to school with fevers, vomiting, coughing, they are attending VERY ill and sadly are unmasked.”

Multiple anecdotes from Island parents paint the same picture: a parent-teacher meeting cancelled in the Sooke school district because of rampant illness; half of a class in Greater Victoria being absent for a whole week; a child in Saanich who suffered through two weeks of COVID-19, only to fall ill again after four days back in school.

School district 64—Gulf Islands—had to shut down the Mayne Island School this past Tuesday, Nov. 29, due to “insufficient staff available to provide appropriate levels of care, supervision and support." Superintendent Scott Benwell’s letter to the school community, seen by Capital Daily, says the “functional closure” was necessary because 75% of students were out sick the day before and both staff members were ill on Tuesday.

Though the education ministry says the situation is being monitored, the health ministry’s statement indicates they do not plan to step in with infection prevention measures. Both ministries pointed to the infection prevention guidelines drawn up at the start of the school year for school districts to follow.

“We continue to remind everyone to stay home when they’re sick,” the health ministry wrote, after emphasizing the importance of getting vaccinated against influenza and COVID-19. “You can avoid COVID-19, influenza and other respiratory illnesses by using all the tools we have, including practising good hand hygiene, regularly cleaning surfaces and staying up to date on all your immunizations.”

These are, however, recommendations, and are not enforced, leading to districts creating their own rules ad hoc.

The Greater Victoria School District (SD61) scaled back their funding for janitors at elementary schools at the start of the school year—according to a grievance filed by the GVTA in September, desks are only cleaned once a week. This contravenes the province’s guidelines which require that, “cleaning and disinfection of frequently touched surfaces should occur at least once in a 24-hour period and when visibly dirty.”

To the GVTA’s grievance on cleaning frequency, Turcotte said SD61 has acknowledged the challenging situation and is “working on finding a solution.” Individual schools in Greater Victoria have also started to take matters into their own hands.

“Some schools have been reaching out to the district, sharing with them what their specific realities are—sharing with the district some of the things that have been happening in their schools—and the district has been responding to those letters individually,” she said.

The superintendent of SD61, Deb Whitten, did not respond to Capital Daily’s request for an interview, nor did she answer questions sent by email in time for publication.

According to Turcotte, the cuts to custodial hours are a result of “chronic underfunding by the province” that forces school districts to be increasingly frugal with their spending.

‘That was kind of tone deaf’

The health ministry also said they “recommend postponing non-essential close contact with those who are at a higher risk of developing severe illness or complications from COVID-19 or influenza” for people who are symptomatic.

They also included guidance for situations in which it is “essential to be in close contact with others” even when symptomatic: “Masking in indoor spaces, washing hands and respiratory etiquette.”

At her school, Avery said there has been no communication from public health officials about the rising level of sickness she is seeing. Instead, the school board explicitly pointed out that the province has relaxed infection control measures.

“There was an email [last] week reminding us that public health no longer requires isolation,” Avery said, referring to a memo from the school board. “That was kind of tone deaf, I would say.”

While the ministries keep encouraging people to stay home when sick, both Avery and Turcotte said this has not proved possible for many staff who have used up their paid sick days, or who choose to work while ill in order to ease the burden on other staff who would have had to fill in.

“We are short staffed every day and we're not as bad as some schools—like, we haven't had to double up classes yet—but I suspect in January, there's going to be some of that going on,” Avery said.

The GVTA does not get information from SD61 on the overall student absence rates in the district, but does know when absent teachers can’t be replaced because of a shortage of substitutes.

“Not having replacement teachers is certainly putting a lot of pressure on our teachers to have to go into work when they’re feeling not great, because they know that that becomes a burden for their colleagues,” Turcotte said, reiterating that the situation has not improved since earlier this month.  

In the wake of rising illnesses and a dearth of public health measures, the two said some staff are taking their own steps to prevent spreading viruses.

At Avery’s school, most teachers are now wearing masks, but not the students. Turcotte shared an anecdote about what teachers are seeing in Victoria: those who wear a mask to class have more students who also choose to wear one.

“It's just an interesting observation that maybe students would be more inclined if it was more normalized,” Turcotte said.

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