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Nearly 20% of Tri-City kids are absent from school — but not all are sick

Strict adherence to daily health checks, isolation due to exposure, COVID-19 symptoms or squeamishness about returning to school may be keeping kids home.
Sick child fever temperature
Absenteeism among students at Coquitlam area schools hit 18.3 per cent, a 30% increase from this time in 2020 (pre pandemic).

Rates of illness among staff and students are trending higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic but are on par with a bad flu season, says School District 43 (SD43).

But while absenteeism has hit a high of 18.3 per cent among Tri-City children, not all kids are staying home because they are sick.

In fact, just 6.6 per cent of children are reported being away from school due to illness.

SD43 officials believe many parents are keeping their children home from school to avoid risks posed by the Omicron variant of the virus.

"Maybe we're not getting Information from some families, but we know there are some families who choose to keep children away if a neighbour has a runny nose and they go to the same school," said Stephen Whiffin, director of instruction, during Tuesday's (Jan. 18) school board meeting.

With almost 20 per cent of students staying home, SD43 is seeing a drop of nearly 6,000 students out of the 32,000 strong student population.

In January 2020, student absentee rates was far lower at 13.6 per cent.


Meanwhile, some officials are worried about low attendance rates if they aren't specifically for illness or isolation due to COVID-19 or exposure.

Last week, Fraser Health medical health officer Ariella Zbar sent a letter out to parents reassuring schools are a safe place for children because of all the current health measures.

"K-12 schools continue to be safe places for children to learn in-person during the pandemic," Zbar srote in her letter. 

"For parents and guardians, we look forward to your children returning to school to learn, be with their friends and peers and be part of a safe school environment."

Meanwhile, absenteeism among teachers, support workers and administrators is higher than pre-pandemic but "not significantly more," according to Randy Manhas, director of SD43 human resources.

He said January 2021 is not a good month to make comparisons because there was little illness among staff due to all the COVID-19 protocols in place.

However, this winter is on par with a typical flu season, said Manhas, and he said systems in place to cover classes are the same as used in prior years, where non-enrolling teachers and administrators fill-in, along with substitute teachers if they are available.

So far, the Coquitlam district hasn't hit a crisis as far as staffing levels are concerned.

Superintendent Patricia Gartland said SD43 monitors absenteeism with each school daily and is expected to report to B.C.'s ministry of education any exceptional declines in student or staff attendance.


If it identifies "activity signals" — such as attendance in a school at a level of 10 per cent below historic normal, or fewer than 75 per cent in a grade, or a "functional closure" due to staffing shortages — the district must notify provincial health and ministry of education officials. 

"The complications are that with the daily health check and the necessity with anyone with symptoms to not attend work or school — In the past, if you had a runny noise you could power through colds and flu," explained Gartland.

"Now nobody is supposed to be powering through anything so people are staying home if they have symptoms… or maybe they're reluctant when there is a more contagious variant."