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Illness-related absentee rate hits 30% at some local schools

‘Very high’ numbers of kids off sick from Sudbury schools, health unit says, thanks to a combination of respiratory virus, influenza and COVID-19
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You may have noticed a lot of kids have been getting sick in Greater Sudbury and across the province lately.

Public Health Sudbury and Districts has confirmed there have been abnormally large absenteeism rates due to illness at area schools in recent weeks.

This as The Canadian Press reports that a combination of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), the flu and COVID-19 have been putting immense pressure on Ontario's pediatric hospitals, with many having to cancel surgeries to accommodate the influx of patients.

Earlier this fall, in an interview about increasing RSV infections, Public Health Sudbury told Sudbury.com that earlier in the pandemic, more people were taking precautions to prevent infection.

Precautions such as masking, physical distancing and hand sanitizing were highly effective, and cases of respiratory illnesses dropped.

But now, since many people have stopped taking the same precautions they did during the pandemic, the incidence of respiratory illnesses has increased.

In light of this situation, Sudbury.com reached out to Public Health Sudbury and Districts to get a look at recent absenteeism rates in local schools.

PHSD currently collects data on illness-related student absenteeism daily from three of the four local school boards.

The data is based upon information provided by parents to their child’s school each day, i.e., that they are sick. It is likely that this is underreported, said PHSD, adding that data on the specific nature of the students’ illness is not available.

PHSD said that on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022, roughly 11 per cent of elementary students at schools within Public Health Sudbury and Districts’ service area were reported as absent due to illness. 

One week prior, on Friday, Nov. 18, 2022, the rate was nine per cent.  

Public Health Sudbury also noted that a number of schools have recently reported rates of illness-related absenteeism exceeding 25 to 30 per cent of their student population.

“These rates are very high, significantly greater than what we would normally expect to see at this time of year,” said an email from PHSD on the matter.

“On the final Friday of November, in each of 2017–2019, the average rate of illness-related student absenteeism among elementary students in our area was 2.2 per cent.”

Among secondary students in our area, the reported rate of illness-related absenteeism was 3.5 per cent on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022, and 2.1 per cent on Nov. 18, 2022.

In 2017–2019, the reported rate of illness-related absenteeism on the final Friday of November was 0.9 per cent on average among secondary students. 

PHSD said it provided comparisons for the years 2017 to 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, as 2020 and 2021 were not “typical” years for schools. Further, the calculation of these rates is complicated by the fact that so many students were in virtual schools. 

To help prevent and stop the spread of COVID-19 and other communicable diseases in school settings, the Ministry of Education requires schools to monitor their own absenteeism rates and report student and staff absences to Public Health Sudbury and Districts. 

Schools are also expected to report absenteeism rates that are above what the child-care centre or school would typically experience, and absences that the administrator does not think are linked to other factors (e.g., holidays). 

When schools are deemed to have high absenteeism rates, Public Health’s School Focused Nurses follow up to provide guidance and resources to support principals and their respective school communities.

Heidi Ulrichsen is Sudbury.com’s associate content editor. She also covers education and the arts scene.