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Schools to issue absentee updates

Province flip-flops on informing parents

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GET ready for daily updates on absentee rates at your child's school as the province has now decided parents will be warned about potential outbreaks of H1N1 flu.

The pandemic policy flip-flop Wednesday afternoon came amid conflicting messages earlier in the day from Premier Gary Doer and long-term planning from school divisions based on a Manitoba Health directive that would have kept parents in the dark about H1N1 cases in the classroom.

"We are ensuring that parents have the information they need to make informed decisions regarding the health and safety of their children," Education Minister Peter Bjornson announced.

Families across the province will be able to get daily updates on unusual absentee rates at their children's schools by checking their school division website, Bjornson said.

Bjornson said the information will be similar to what is already provided to health authorities. If health officials see abnormally high absentee rates at a school, they investigate the cause.

He said informing parents of high student absentee rates gives them information much more quickly than waiting to tell them of confirmed cases of H1N1.

It will be up to school divisions to decide how to communicate information about high rates of absenteeism to parents, the minister said. In areas where families may not have access to the Internet, school notes may be sent home.

"The directive (to school divisions) is to communicate as effectively as possible for the parents," Bjornson said.

The Conservative Opposition had been hounding the government for weeks to come up with a policy for warning parents of school-age children about an H1N1 outbreak.

But the government had been content to leave the decision to medical experts.

"I think we should rely on medical advice on what we should do in a school and how we should inform people," Doer told the Free Press Wednesday morning, adding that knowing when to inform parents was a complicated decision and varied depending on the size of the school. He made similar comments to CJOB in the morning.

But a few hours later, the province rolled out a new communication strategy.

Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen accused the government of making policy on the fly. He said the announcement and the premier's earlier comments showed a lack of overall government preparation on H1N1.

"This flying by the seat of their pants and making up policy as they go along does nothing to reassure Manitobans that they're on top of this important file," McFadyen said.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 1, 2009 A4

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