Nova Scotia

Student absences remain high during Omicron wave, especially in Cape Breton

Classrooms have been unusually empty across Nova Scotia since they reopened last month amid the ongoing wave of COVID-19 — but nowhere more so than Cape Breton.

School staff on the island are looking into what's keeping students home

A classroom at John MacNeil Elementary in Dartmouth, N.S., on Jan. 13, 2022, a few days ahead of the return to in-person learning. Since classrooms reopened, absentee rates have been double the norm. (Robert Short/CBC)

Classrooms have been unusually empty across Nova Scotia since they reopened last month amid the ongoing wave of COVID-19 — but nowhere more so than Cape Breton.

Overall, the student absence rate in the province has been over 15 per cent for each of the first three weeks of in-person learning, according to data provided to CBC News by the province's seven school regions and CSAP, the French school board.

That's about twice the norm. The typical rate of student absences for similar periods in past years has been between seven and eight per cent.

Absences have been notably higher in Cape Breton than any other part of the province, with the rate ranging between 24 and 30 per cent over the past three weeks. 

Neither the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional Centre for Education nor the Department of Education could provide an explanation for the higher absentee rate on the island. However, staff at Cape Breton schools are looking into attendance patterns, according to a spokesperson for the department.

"Schools will be making personal connections and following up with families to help encourage and support any students who identify issues preventing them from returning to school," Jenna MacQueen said in an email.

MLAs serving parts of Cape Breton couldn't entirely account for the difference in attendance on the island, either.

Kendra Coombes, who represents Cape Breton Centre-Whitney Pier for the NDP, said she's heard from constituents whose children are home because of COVID-19 infections, exposures and because of anxiety about potential exposures.

Those reasons are likely ubiquitous across the province, although it's impossible to say to what extent since families are not obligated to tell school administrators why their child is absent.

Coombes ventured that Cape Breton may have more intergenerational households than other regions, and therefore more people keeping their children home to protect older family members and those with underlying health conditions from potential COVID-19 exposure.

Derek Mombourquette, the MLA for Sydney-Whitney Pier and one-time education minister for the Liberals, said he too has heard from families keeping their children home for COVID-related reasons. 

In particular, Mombourquette said he's heard from many families that elected to keep their kids home because of the discontinuation of contact tracing in schools.

As for why the absentee rate in Cape Breton is double the provincial average, he said it's a difficult question to answer.

"I hope that we get past this point. We want all of our kids in school," he said.


Taryn Grant


Taryn Grant is a Halifax-based reporter and web writer for CBC Nova Scotia. You can email her with tips and feedback at


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