There were more empty seats than usual in Manitoba classrooms Monday, with several school divisions recording twice as many student absences on the first day of in-person learning compared with typical mid-January attendance.
Grade 9 student Mikha Bourget was among those who did not show up to class because of widespread COVID-19 community transmission in Winnipeg. If the choice was solely hers, however, the 14-year-old said she would have happily made the trek to Collège Garden City Collegiate.
"I’d rather be at school because the teachers there could help me with the work… I miss it all: being able to be in a group in the hall with friends, just having a normal life," said Mikha, during a break from her remote studies Tuesday.
"I tried to convince (my mom) to let me go to school, but then I just gave up."
Comfort levels surrounding the resumption of in-class learning are varied, ranging from reasons including a steady incline in virus-related hospitalizations to the unavailability of booster shots for anyone 17 or younger.
About 8,000 pupils — or a quarter of students in nursery to Grade 12 in Manitoba’s largest school district — were marked as absent Monday. In early 2019, long before remote learning was a common phrase, only around 4,000 Winnipeg School Division students did not show up to class daily.
River East Transcona and Seven Oaks recorded similar trends, with absenteeism rates of 17 per cent (more than double its Jan. 17, 2018 count) and 16 per cent (double what is typical for the division during this time of year), respectively.
Phone calls home and parents’ calls into schools indicate there have been a combination of positive test results between students and other household members, the latter of which is prompting healthy youth to stay home, while some parents are taking a "wait-and-see" approach, said Brian O’Leary, superintendent of Seven Oaks.
The latest precautionary change in some schools is tweaks to lunchtime protocols, such as splitting students up into groups or spreading them out, to ensure everyone can be distanced to eat, he said.
Administrators are encouraging students to return, but they understand parents’ concerns and will continue to closely monitor absenteeism, he added.
Divisions are now expected to alert public health officials if any of their schools record "high" COVID-19 caseloads or absenteeism rates, in order to determine whether interventions — a rapid testing surveillance program or temporary distance learning period — are necessary.
In Louis Riel, absenteeism was 18 per cent Monday; on the second Monday after winter break two years ago, it was about 13 per cent.
Division parents can now search new online dashboards to see both district-wide absenteeism trends and school-by-school data on COVID-19-related absences. However, this data relies on community reports of absences related to a student being in quarantine, having symptoms, or receiving a positive test on a PCR or rapid antigen test.
The dashboards, which provide a glimpse into internal monitoring of attendance in Louis Riel, will refresh daily at 4:30 p.m.
"It’s the least we can do," said superintendent Christian Michalik.
"Right now, the health and wellness of students and staff are front and centre. They have been all through the pandemic, but with this return to school in the midst of this Omicron wave, it is even more heightened than before, so the least I can do is be transparent with the community."
Michalik said he hopes the charts reassure families and alleviates some of the workload on principals, who were, up until recently, tasked with supporting contact tracing.
Families are no longer receiving close contact or courtesy letters from schools after every COVID-19 exposure as the province’s reporting system evolves from a case-by-case basis to a school-wide level, owing to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.
Mikha’s mom, Amanda Lund, said the change is unfair to families who want to know if there is a positive case in a classroom.
The Seven Oaks mother is "petrified" that one of her four children, who are between the ages of 11 and 19, could become ill during the latest wave, she said. Her eldest has underlying conditions that put him at risk of severe outcomes if he were to contract COVID-19.
She informed her children’s principals of their situation and received temporary laptops and schoolwork.
"I’m feeling as if I’m making them hermits, like me, because of my anxiety," she said.
At the same time, the mother of four said keeping her kids home is the right call to ensure everyone’s physical safety.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.