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Illness emptying Maritime classrooms


In Nova Scotia, the evidence may only be anecdotal, but some parents say they’ve noticed more kids missing from school lately.

"People say now there's regular sick and COVID sick, so now there's two kinds of sickness," says parent Shataya Stevenson.

Stevenson was waiting for her son outside Halifax’s Joseph Howe School, and says her child has been sick several times already this school year.

She worries about him missing too much class time.

"Because especially over the times of COVID, I’ve had to be the teacher at home, so that's really challenging where I’m a student myself and I also work," she says.

The concern is that the same respiratory viruses filling children's emergency departments, such as influenza, RSV, and COVID-19, are also emptying classrooms.

"We hear from teachers all the time that their classrooms, some are 40 to 50 per cent empty,” says Ryan Lutes, head of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.

Lutes says staff are also out sick as well.

"Obviously when kids are out that's a problem for families and their education, when teachers are out it's a problem for school's ability to run effectively and make sure schools get all the supports that they need,” says Lutes.

"Right now we clearly don’t have enough (substitute teachers) in the system, and it does create lots of pressures, a lot of schools everyday are in crisis because they don’t have the puzzle pieces that are necessary to build the puzzle.”

The province’s Associate Deputy Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development (EECD), Elwin LeRoux, maintains schools are managing.

But he couldn’t provide provincial absenteeism rates Tuesday.

"As there is illness in community more this year than in the past, we would see more absences from students and from staff in our schools,” says LeRoux.

CTV News asked the province’s largest school board, with an enrollment of 53,787 students, for its recent figures.

Numbers from the Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) indicate on average, students in grades primary through 12 were in attendance at a rate of 87 per cent in November to date, compared to 90 per cent in November of 2021.

Meanwhile, New Brunswick’s education department recently released October attendance statistics for the Anglophone school districts.

Those numbers show students were absent more this October, than in the previous two years - an average of 1.9 days absent versus 1.4 days in 2020 for younger grades. Students in grades 9 to 12 were absent for an average of 2.5 days in October 2022 compared to 1.9 two years ago.

A spokesperson for New Brunswick’s Education and Early Childhood Development department says the numbers provided do not identify why a student may be absent, which could include "dental and medical appointments, sickness, or personal/family reasons.…"

"It's quite clear that the rules have changed for acceptable attendance," says education expert Paul Bennett, who’s been exploring issues around student absenteeism throughout the pandemic.

He says missing 16 days of school a year was once considered by education departments as "chronically absent."

The Saint Mary’s University adjunct professor of education says provincial authorities must be fully transparent about current absenteeism rates.

"What is acceptable attendance in the pandemic world? And what proportion of students are missing 25 per cent of the classes?” says Bennett.

Bennett says he’s concerned about long-term effects on students - not only from higher absenteeism due to illness - but also from what he describes as increasing “disruptions” to school learning, including classroom disorder, noise, and even violence.

“We’re a long way from normalcy,” he says, “someone has to connect the dots, the pandemic disruption has a whole series of impacts.”

LeRoux says the EECD in Nova Scotia is following public health advice for schools, and insists day-to-day solutions to the present challenges are keeping learning on track.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the province’s Department of Health and Wellness writes, "Absenteeism due to COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses is expected. For this reason, public health is monitoring aggregate data on school absenteeism. Local Public Health is prioritizing responding to schools where unusual trends are identified through established reporting channels."

"Public Health encourages everyone to continue their healthy habits learned and adopted through the COVID-19 pandemic,” continues Khalehla Perrault.

"Dr. Strang and his team at Public Health are in regular contact with the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (EECD) to provide recommendations on how to best to protect students and staff in schools." Top Stories

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