Ontario data 'doesn't tell full story' of COVID-19 situation in classrooms, says school board

Ontario's new system of reporting school absences "doesn't tell the full story" of COVID-19 in the province's classrooms, according to one school board, because the data doesn't provide contextual information.

On Monday, the province debuted a new data set that gives parents daily updates on the number of students and staff absent from the school on any given day -- which replaced the detailed COVID-19 data families relied on between September and December last year.

According to the Toronto District School Board, however, the data omits critical information that could leave parents guessing and the board is looking at how it can further clarify the information.

"The fact is, those numbers do not paint the entire picture, they are about absences from the school," Ryan Bird, a spokesperson for the TDSB, told CTV News Toronto on Tuesday.

"We've had some examples where an absence rate was 55 per cent [and] we follow up with the school to find out [there’s] one known COVID-19 case in the school."

Bird said, in addition to a positive case, students or staff could be absent for a variety of reasons — from taking a vacation to attending appointments, or even observing a religious day — but the data doesn't distinguish the reason behind the absences.

"At the TDSB, we're looking at how we can take some of this information and bring further clarity to it and we're looking how we can present that information to give a little more of an accurate snapshot of the actual absences at an individual school,” he said.

The hazy data also impacts school closures, which the Ministry of Education says will only be reported if COVID-19 creates operational challenges -- a policy that hasn't changed since September.

On Jan. 21, for example, sixteen Ontario schools were closed "due to operational impacts of COVID-19," but three days later, the province reported eleven schools were closed for the same reason.

What the provincial reporting website does not indicate, however, is what changed over the span of a weekend to allow five of those sixteen schools to reopen and why the remainder are still closed to students and staff.

When asked for further information about the closures, a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said "only closures associated with operational reasons due to COVID-19" are reported and that "staff shortages" could result in school closures as well.

The lack of information has led a group of Ottawa parents to create a self-reporting Facebook group that now has more than 8,000 members -- 1,900 of whom joined in the last week.

"With kids going back to school and no tracing in the classrooms or daycares anymore, this is a place to self-report location and dates [of] positive COVID cases so people can make individual risk assessments," the group said in a description.

Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca slammed the new reporting mechanism which, he claims, creates "chaos" in the education sector.

"I don't know how parents are supposed to decipher the information that came out yesterday," Del Duca said during an unrelated news conference. "I know it's going to cause a great deal of concern [and] anxiety."

"We all hope for the best, but this does nothing to instill confidence."