Absences at Hamilton public schools during COVID are double what they were last year

The number of absences in staff and students in Hamilton's public school board is more than double what they were last year, before the COVID-19 pandemic began infecting people in schools and across the region.

Absences of staff and students have jumped in the early weeks of the school year

It's unclear how many of the 45,000 absences are by families who kept students home out of fear they could become sick. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

The number of staff and student absences in Hamilton's public schools so far this year is more than double what it was last year, before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Shawn McKillop, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board's spokesperson, told CBC there were 45,252 absences fin the period from Wednesday, Sept. 23, to Tuesday, Sept. 29. For the same period last year the number of absences was 18,025. 

The jump in absences comes in the early weeks of school reopening as second-wave cases climb around the province.

The board says it believes the numbers show people are being cautious. But of the 45,000 absences, the board can confirm just 2,500 of them are definitively related to COVID-19 (2,052 pertain to students, 446 pertain to staff).

Those COVID-related numbers include students and staff who have the virus, those who self-isolated because they came in contact with someone infected, or didn't pass the board's COVID-19 screening.

There are just two confirmed COVID cases related to public schools, one a student and one a worker at a day care attached to a school.

That means it's unclear how many of the 45,000 absences are by families who kept students home out of fear they could become sick or other reasons. 

Daryl Jerome, president of the local Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, believes that number is high and said the 45,000 absences are "absolutely concerning."

He said it has been an extremely hard year for families and for educators.

"I know my members are struggling right now on many different levels. They're doing their best to provide the quality education they do but it's so tough right now," Jerome explained.

"I've heard so many stories of my teachers literally breaking down in tears at schools in halls, when talking with other members because they're just so overwhelmed." 

McKillop emphasizes the absences total is a cumulative number of days missed, not individual students or staff. That means the number counts same people being absent for multiple day for each day missed. 

The numbers also follow a leap in enrollment into the board's virtual school board.

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HWDSB also revealed in a board report to trustees that 116 staff and 1057 students were absent between Sept. 14 and 25 for not passing the board's COIVD-19 screening assessment tool.

"This is pretty much what we would expect in terms of screening," Peter Sovran, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board associate director of learning services, said.

"It's having its intended effect, which is you attested you'll do the  screening and stay home and call it in, so it sure tells me people are taking the screening seriously."

Sovran said he would be more alarmed if the number of screening absences were low.

"With 50,000 students minus ones doing remote learning, we're still more than 40,000 students. On any given day, you're going to have students away for a whole variety of reasons, so if they're following the screening process, that's a good thing ... it's the number one thing we can do, not come into a public space when we're not feeling well."

Five schools in Hamilton's public and Catholic boards have dealt with COVID-19 cases.

The Catholic board doesn't have its absence numbers yet.

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