More than one out of five students and staff were absent from Toronto’s public schools on Friday, underscoring the challenge associated with continuing in-person learning amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

The figures provide the first look at school-by-school absentee rates since the start of the pandemic and effectively replace the daily reports on positive COVID-19 cases in student and staff that the Ministry of Education provided previously.

The data shows that among 497 public schools in Toronto that uploaded information to a ministry portal for Friday the average absence rate was 20.70 per cent.

The city’s largest school board – the TDSB – reported an average absence rate of 22.88 per cent – while the absence rate in the TCDSB was 14.51 per cent.

While the data includes all absences and is not necessarily a reflection of the number of COVID-19 cases associated with any one school, it does point to significant disruptions to in-person learning just as students were returning to the classroom for the first time in approximately a month.

There were a total of 70 schools in Toronto reporting an absentee rate above 30 per cent on Friday, including 17 with an absence rate north of 40 per cent.

At some schools, such as Forest Hill Collegiate Institute (48.7 per cent) and Yorkdale Secondary School (46.6) nearly half of all students and staff were absent for various reasons on Friday.

The province has said that parents will only be directly notified once a school hits a 30 per cent absentee rate above baseline attendance and that closures can only be considered, and not necessarily implemented, at that time.

While Toronto school boards will still inform impacted classes of any positive case of COVID-19 that they become aware of, that level of disclosure is no longer required by the province.

In the place of reliable information on positive cases in the classroom, the ministry has pledged to make the school-by-school absence data available each weekday for the previous day. The data will be uploaded by 10:30 a.m. each day.

“During a period of uncertainty around the world we want parents to have greater knowledge about the rates of absenteeism in their schools,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said during a photo-op at a vaccine clinic in Markham on Monday morning. “This ensures parents have daily access of rates of absenteeism. It also allows families with the use of rapid tests layered into that knowledge, the ability to take immediate action at home should their child be symptomatic. All of this, including the enhancements to our PPE, the accelerated access to boosters, it is all designed to support in-class learning and reduce risk.”

NDP say absentee rates alone offer ‘little usefulness’

There were as many as 72 Ontario schools that were closed due to the pandemic at one point in December but with school-aged children and educational workers no longer included amongst those eligible for government-funded PCR testing at assessment centres, there are likely to be fewer confirmed outbreaks in the coming weeks and months as the province shifts focus to preventing severe cases, rather than infection itself.

The ministry says that as of Friday there were a total of 16 Ontario schools closed for reasons related to the pandemic, a category which includes operational considerations like staffing shortages.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear how many of the schools reporting high levels of absences on Friday will be required to notify parents, as the ministry is not providing information about pre-pandemic absenteeism rates and says that school boards will “be best positioned” to make a determination about when absentee rates “sharply increase.”

CP24 did reach out to the TDSB for information on its baseline absentee rates on Monday but was told that information was not immediately available.

“The school COVID data being released by the Ford government today is laughably vague and offers little usefulness. Parents across Ontario looking at this information will be left with more questions than answers,” NDP Education critic Marit Stiles said in a statement issued on Monday afternoon. “We cannot risk students’ health, or more school closures. 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."

Elsewhere in the GTA on Friday public schools reported an average absence rate of 14.55 per cent.

The absence rate in the Peel District School Board was 19.38 per cent while the Durham District School Board reported an absence rate of 18.55 per cent and the York District School Board reported an absence rate of 13.07 per cent.

Overall about 71 per cent of Ontario’s public schools reported absence data for Friday, though data for more than 1,400 schools was not provided. 

A spokesperson for the ministry says that the province has “followed up with boards” to reinforce that the reporting of absentee rates is mandatory.