School attendance plummets as illnesses sweep N.S. classrooms

Attendance rates at Halifax-area schools have steadily dropped since September due to an increase in illnesses. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)
Attendance rates at Halifax-area schools have steadily dropped since September due to an increase in illnesses. (Robert Short/CBC - image credit)

As a number of viruses circulate in Nova Scotia classrooms, attendance rates in schools have steadily fallen since September.

At least in the Halifax area, that trend picked up even more over the month of November.

In the Halifax Regional Centre for Education, the province's most populous education district, average attendance rates dropped from 92 per cent in September, to 90 per cent in October, to 86 per cent in November.

Over the course of November, attendance fell steadily, from 89 per cent the first week to 83 per cent last week.

That's the lowest attendance rate in the Halifax area in November for at least five years. November attendance rates in the HRCE were 93 per cent in 2018, 94 per cent in 2019, 91 per cent in 2020, and 90 per cent in 2021.

Attendance in Halifax schools

There are nearly 54,000 students at schools in the Halifax Regional Centre for Education.

Absenteeism in Halifax appears to have crept up most significantly among younger grades over the past month. Last week, the attendance rate for primary school students was 79 per cent, down from 88 per cent at the beginning of the month.

Illness driving absenteeism

The rise in absenteeism is occurring alongside a significant increase in influenza A and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in the province, as well as the ongoing presence of other viruses such as enterovirus/rhinovirus, adenovirus and, of course, COVID-19.

The HRCE does not track the reason for student absences; it only records whether a student is present or not.

"However, we know that illness in the community reflects illness in schools, and we've seen attendance in our schools lower in recent weeks due to illness," said a spokesperson in an emailed statement.

"We continue to encourage families and staff to follow Public Health's advice to stay home when you're sick, wash hands regularly and wear masks when appropriate to protect yourself and others from illness."

Sickness rampant, father says

Jeremy White, the father of two students who attend Beechville Lakeside Timberlea Senior Elementary in Timberlea, N.S., says absenteeism in his daughter's Grade 3 class has been so extreme that on one recent day, every single student was absent.

He said he asked his daughter's teacher during parent-teacher interviews last week what the illness level had been like in the class.

"I was asking, well, how bad was the sickness? And she told me, you know, last Tuesday every one of my students were out sick," he said. "One hundred per cent of the children were out sick."

Brian MacKay/CBC
Brian MacKay/CBC

The day after that, eight of the 25 students were back, and by the end of the week, 13 were back, White said.

Then, the following Monday — Nov. 28 — White's daughter came home and told him she didn't have a teacher that day. No substitutes were available, so the kids in his daughter's class were split up and asked to join other classrooms, he said.

White said his kids wear a mask at school — some of the few who still do — but even so, his family has been continually sick since the end of September.

"They're still getting sick from the kids around them.… Like my son came home one Friday saying the kid behind me coughed on me all day. By Sunday, he was sick."

White says he'd like the school and the regional centre for education to do more to curb the spread of infections by bringing back masks and distributing COVID-19 test kits to all parents.

Get vaccinated, says Strang

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, sent a letter home to families of students on Monday urging them to protect themselves and each other by getting vaccinated and staying home when sick. He also said students should wear a mask for two to three days at school after returning from illness.

"If we all work together, fewer people will get sick, and we can have a significant impact on the spread of respiratory viruses in our homes and communities."

Ryan Lutes, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, told the CBC late last month he's hearing anecdotally that student absenteeism has significantly increased.

"Some teachers that I've been hearing from have said, you know, half of their class sometimes is out sick."

Nova Scotia Teachers Union
Nova Scotia Teachers Union

Illness among teachers has also strained the system, exacerbating a shortage of substitute teachers, he said.

But Lutes stopped short of calling for a return to online learning or a mask mandate.

"We expect Public Health to be looking at the data, to be keeping a close handle on things. And if we do need to switch gears, that's certainly an option and certainly we would support any switching of gears by Public Health that puts teachers and kids, you know, that keeps their safety at heart."

Lutes said masking rates are "very low" in schools, although he has heard that more people are starting to wear them due to the surge in various illnesses.

"I'd hate to put a number on it but I'd be shocked if it was more than five per cent," he said.

Absenteeism rising in other parts of N.S.

Attendance within other education districts also appears to have dropped recently.

In the Strait region, attendance fell from 90.4 per cent in September to 85.3 per cent in November.

In the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional Centre for Education, attendance was 87 per cent in both September and October, but fell to 80 per cent in November.

In the Annapolis Valley, attendance went from 91.3 per cent in September to 89.4 per cent in October to 82.9 per cent in November.