TORONTO — More than 300 Ontario schools reported staff and student absences of more than 30 per cent by the end of last week, after students returned for in-person learning following the latest pandemic-related shutdown.
But the data includes all absences, not just those that might be related to COVID-19, making it tough to gauge the impact of the Omicron variant on Ontario's school system now that the province is no longer publicly reporting cases in schools.
Some schools reported high absences due to the weather or technical errors. Data was also missing for about 1,400 of the province's 4,844 schools.
Data published Monday show 337 schools had hit the 30 per cent mark as of Friday and 111 schools reported absences higher than 50 per cent of all staff and students.
Absence information was made available for 3,451 of the province's schools.
The province has said schools will have to report absences of more than 30 per cent to local public health units. It's up to public health and the school board to discuss what should happen next, including if or when families will be notified.
There isn't a set threshold at which point the province will close an individual school or shutter all schools across the province.
"If the (absence) rate suddenly rises 30 per cent above their baseline, we'll have communication, which may include closure, may include further augmentation of their safety protocols within the schools to further keep them as open as they can be," Dr. Kieran Moore, the province's top doctor, said at a photo op at a Markham, Ont., vaccine clinic on Monday.
"We'll be working at a local level to try our best to keep our schools as open as possible."
Speaking alongside Moore, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said "public health will take action" in the event of COVID-19 concerns at a particular school.
He also pointed to rapid tests the government has promised to families so they can test their children if they have symptoms, as well as to the absence data, saying the province thinks it "will help improve access to knowledge so that they can make the best decisions for their children."
A spokesman for the Toronto District School Board -- where 68 schools reported Friday absence levels of 30 per cent or higher -- said no letters were going home as of Monday, and no schools were currently closed.
Karen Littlewood, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said teachers are concerned about lack of clear data on cases, and what will happen after 30 per cent of a school is away.
"There isn't a clear answer as to what happens at that point," she said by phone.
"Without any sort of consistent messaging or reporting of data or sharing of data, it makes it really difficult for anyone to make any decisions going forward."
She also noted that some teachers feel caught in a grey area when it comes to reporting COVID-19 cases in their classes, as that was not the responsibility of individual staff members before the province shifted its contact tracing and testing policy in December.
On Monday, it was unclear exactly what factors were behind the absence data, especially after a week of snowy winter weather that prompted many boards to cancel bus routes, close schools or move classes online.
As of Friday, 21 schools had reported absences higher than 80 per cent. Schools with the 10 highest absence percentages included one in Toronto, three in North Bay, two in Parry Sound and one each in Kenora, Sturgeon Falls and South River.
However, five of those reported high levels of absences because of the weather, according to a spokeswoman for the Near North District School Board.
Deb Bartlett said in a statement that all buses were cancelled on Friday due to the cold, driving up the absence numbers because "the vast majority" of students ride the bus to school. She noted that buses were cancelled again due to the weather on Monday, but schools weren't closed on either of those two days.
The province reported that 16 schools or 0.3 per cent were closed as of Friday.
Meanwhile, one school in the Niagara Catholic District School Board had initially reported 100 per cent of its population absent on Friday, but a spokeswoman for the board later clarified that it was included in error because the school had been closed for a professional development day. Jennifer Pellegrini said board schools were open on Monday.
The absence data also includes some students who are self-isolating but learning online at home, the province said Monday. However, they will be considered "present" for their lessons if they log on to online classes.
Premier Doug Ford's government closed schools for two weeks earlier this month amid rapid spread of the Omicron variant, which has placed a strain on the province's healthcare system and labour force.
Ford said at the time that the province couldn't guarantee schools could be kept open given the high level of Omicron spread that would likely leave many people unable to work due to infections or exposures.
Unions have warned families to prepare for disruptions related to the virus, and provincial officials have said schools may have to move classes online for days at a time to accommodate staffing challenges.
The Opposition New Democrats called the new data "vague and useless" and called on the government to bring back fulsome COVID-19 testing access for schools.
"Parents across Ontario looking at this information will be left with more questions than answers," education critic Marit Stiles said in a written statement.
"The goal must be to keep every school open until June. To do that, the Ford government needs to reinstate testing, tracing, and actual COVID-19 case reporting, so that parents are alerted whenever there’s an infection in their child’s classroom."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 24, 2022.
Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had an incorrect number of schools closed as of Friday.