30% student absenteeism pushes South Island school to the brink

Many families are relieved to have their kids back at school, but after just eight days back, it's already clear that in person learning may not last at all schools across Vancouver Island.

At École John Stubbs Memorial School in the Sooke School District, absenteeism amongst students was at 30 per cent Wednesday, compared to the district’s average this week of 16 per cent, or the average of seven per cent last year.

Not all of those current absences are due to illness, but many are. The school hasn’t been ordered closed yet, but the district’s Supt. Scott Stinson says it’s planning to bring in extra custodians to keep it especially sanitized.

“We certainly are treating this very seriously,” said Stinson Wednesday. “At this point, the advice we have from public health, from the (medical health officer), is the school is not at the point where we would need to close it.”

A handful of schools across B.C. have already been temporarily closed to in-person learning due to a shortage of staff. On Wednesday, two schools in Abbotsford were closed for the week.

No such closures have happened in Vancouver Island yet, but the chair of the Sooke School District, Ravi Parmar, says he is very concerned that a shortage of custodians and bus drivers might trigger a functional closure.

“We have a couple positions that we’re very, very short on, and can’t rely on extras for — one is bus drivers and the other is custodians,” said Parmar. “I’m very nervous on the custodian and bus driver front."

Meanwhile, in Victoria, where student attendance was close to normal for the first week back, Winona Waldron, the president of the Greater Victoria Teachers' Association, worries new guidance that students and staff can return to school once their symptoms largely clear up may lead to the spread of COVID-19 cases in schools. She thinks a closure for some classes is likely in the coming weeks.

“Unless numbers, COVID numbers in the community significantly decrease, I think we're likely to see some sort of closure,” she said Wednesday.

There’s no specific threshold for when health authorities or school districts would close a school for in-person learning and shift online, but the districts say they’re pulling out all the stops to keep kids in the classroom.

“Prior to us having to do a functional closure, we would have to deploy every teacher that we have in the school district — that would include associate superintendents (and) myself,” said Stinson, who, like many, hopes the district can ride out the worst of this wave and keep students in the classroom.