COVID-19 staff absences hitting home at London-area school boards

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London-area school boards are grappling with a flood of staff absences as sixth wave case counts continue to rise, a situation so critical it forced two schools online Friday.

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The Thames Valley District school board says staffing issues forced it to shift from in-person to online learning at Sir Isaac Brock and Lambeth elementary schools. At the same time, the London District Catholic school board has seen its staff absence rate triple in recent weeks.

The single-day school closings come as one trustee says Thames Valley is dealing with approximately 400 unfilled staff positions each day, a total that may also include non-COVID-related absences.

“This was discussed at our last program meeting,” trustee Lori-Ann Pizzolato, who chairs the board, said Friday.

“We’re concerned about family and staff mental health at this time. We want to work with our community partners to see what we can do.”

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The exact number of off-work staff in the Thames Valley board was not available Friday. The board has to report schools with more than 30 per cent of staff and students absent to public health officials and said a handful of schools have reached that threshold since the start of the school year.

The school board is holding a special meeting Tuesday evening where it will receive updates from the Middlesex-London Health Unit and Southwestern Public Health, the health unit in Elgin and Oxford counties.

“We want them to inform us about the local context and provide unique guidance,” Pizzolato said.

“We want this public meeting so they can make it clear to families and staff what their expectations and guidance is for our Thames Valley community.”

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Staff absenteeism on a given day usually ranged from two to three per cent across the London District Catholic school board during the pandemic, director of education Vince Romeo said Friday.

In the three weeks since March break, the board has seen its daily staff absence rate as high as 12 per cent.

“We’re doing our best to manage those absences each day,” he said. “We’ve even deployed a dozen second-year faculty of education students into some of our shorter-term regular assignments. That’s how dire the situation is right now.”

When classes were online, a teacher could continue to teach online classes even if they had a mild symptom, Romeo said. The protocols in place for in-person learning prevent staff from coming in if they have any symptoms at all, he said.

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“We’re still using the daily self-screener. Our staff and students are asked to complete the screening tool our public health units have provided,” Romeo said.

“If you have a symptom that lands in that screening tool, the end result may be you need to stay home. Now staying home means multiple days, not just one.”

Pushing a school online because of staff shortages is a last resort for the Catholic board, Romeo said. Schools will bring in supply teachers, deploy teachers who are not assigned to a class, such as music or French teachers, to a homeroom or merge classes to avoid shutting a school.

Romeo applauded parents and students who have been so accommodating through the pandemic.

“They’ve been so patient, co-operative and resilient with the back and forth between remote learning and face-to-face learning,” he said.

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The Middlesex-London Health Unit reported 58 new COVID-19 cases Friday, a total that does not reflect the full extent of the disease’s activity in the community due to limited eligibility for lab-based testing.

The daily case count has been steadily rising in London and Middlesex County since mid-March.

The school boards aren’t the only London-area organizations struggling with staff absenteeism in the latest phase of the pandemic.

London Health Sciences Centre reported 294 COVID-19 cases among staff Friday, up from 218 about a week ago. Each positive staff member is required to isolate at home for 10 days.

The hospital said last week the volume of staff absences is limiting its ability to ramp up services in the post-emergency phase of the pandemic.

St. Joseph’s Health Care London has approximately 151 COVID-19 cases among staff.

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