Absenteeism rate soars to 20% in Winnipeg’s largest school division as viruses take toll on students

Everything all at once: that’s what it feels like for Winnipeg dad Phil Coss, who says his four-year-old daughter has caught several viruses since the start of the school year, causing her to miss class.

And she’s not the only one. 

Coss said he’s noticed there are fewer students being dropped off in the morning at Laura Secord School in Winnipeg’s Wolseley neighbourhood, where his daughter attends preschool.

“I feel like they’ve had everything in the last few months, and I’m sure there’s more to come, so we’re worried,” he said.

So far this month, the Winnipeg School Division says on average, about 20 per cent of its students have been absent on any given day.

A spokesperson for the division — the largest in the province, with roughly 33,000 students from kindergarten to Grade 12 — said there typically is an uptick in illnesses this time of the year, but a normal monthly absenteeism rate is between 12 and 14 per cent.

Seven Oaks School Division, in northwest Winnipeg, told CBC News its student absentee rate for November was 13.3 per cent. In Louis Riel School Division, in southeast Winnipeg, that number is 18 per cent.

In recent weeks, Winnipeg’s Children’s Hospital has raised alarm over the unprecedented volume of kids being brought to the emergency department with respiratory viruses. 

Similarly, Doctors Manitoba warned of a triple threat virus season, as a combination of RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, flu and COVID-19 cases has overwhelmed the health-care system.

‘We can do better’ for kids: parent

With multiple viruses spreading in the community and students no longer required to wear masks, parent Margaret Bryans said she isn’t surprised to hear absenteeism rates are spiking.

Her 11-year-old daughter, Georgia, also goes to Laura Secord School, and her friends have been in and out of class with illnesses, said Bryans.

“It’s reasonable to expect that our absenteeism is that high, and I just think we can do better by the kids that we love,” said Bryans.

She’d like to see more public health efforts in the schools, including vaccine clinics, proper ventilation and adequate spacing.

Coss thinks it makes sense to bring back masks not just to schools, but everywhere.

“It’s kept us sick-free for a few years, so I don’t see why we wouldn’t continue with that,” he said.

At a virtual town hall meeting earlier this week, Manitoba Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin repeatedly recommended mask wearing, but said the province “certainly won’t be mandating” them.

Teachers hit too: union

Manitoba Teachers’ Society president James Bedford has heard concerns from members about absenteeism numbers — not just among students, but staff too.

Teachers are responsible for making up for students’ learning loss when they’re absent for any reason. But if the teacher is also sick, it becomes more difficult, he said.

“It’s one thing to be there in class and have students absent that you’re playing catch-up with after they come back, but it’s another thing altogether [if the teacher] is out ill.”

Ideally, a substitute teacher would take over the classroom, but a shortage of subs adds to the current challenge, he said.

A man with glasses wears a polo shirt that says 'Manitoba Teachers' Society.' He stands in front of a banner that says the same thing. It features black-and-white photos of people gathered together and holding protest signs about education.
James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, had only half of over 40 registered members show up for a professional development day on Wednesday, with registrants citing illness and a lack of substitute teachers as reasons. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

On Wednesday morning, the teachers’ society expected just over 40 members to attend a day of professional development.

Only about half showed up, Bedford said, with registrants citing illness and a lack of available substitute teachers as reasons for not attending.

As for solutions, masks “are certainly one of those things that are open to debate and discussion, and we are certainly having those conversations,” he said.