The absence of COVID-19 employees applies to highschool boards within the London space

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04/08/202217 minutes ago3 minutes read Join the conversation (Getty Images)

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London-area school boards are grappling with a spate of staff absenteeism as the sixth wave caseload continues to rise, a situation so critical that two schools were forced to go online on Friday.

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The Thames Valley District School Board says staffing issues have forced it to switch from in-person to online learning at Sir Isaac Brock and Lambeth Primary Schools. At the same time, the London Borough’s Catholic Schools Board has tripled the absentee rate of its staff in recent weeks.

The day-long school closures come as a trustee says Thames Valley is dealing with about 400 vacancies every 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 are currently concerned about the mental health of family and staff. We want to work with our community partners to see what we can do.”

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The exact number of off-duty staff at the Thames Valley Board was not available on Friday. The board is required to report schools with more than 30 per cent of staff and students absent to 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 night 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 educate us about the local context and provide unique clues,” Pizzolato said.

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

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Staff absenteeism on any given day has typically ranged between two and three per cent at the London Borough’s Catholic Schools Board during the pandemic, Education Director Vince Romeo said on Friday.

In the three weeks since the March break, the board has seen a daily absentee rate of up to 12 percent.

“We’re doing our best to manage those absences every day,” he said. “We even used a dozen sophomore teachers for some of our short-term regular assignments. That’s how bad the situation is at the moment.”

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

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“We still use the daily self-test. Our staff and students are asked to fill out the screening tool provided by our public health units,” Romeo said.

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

Bringing a school online due to staff shortages is a last resort for the Catholic board, Romeo said. Schools are hiring substitute teachers, putting teachers who are not assigned to a class, such as music or French teachers, in a classroom, or merging classes to avoid closing a school.

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

“They have been so patient, collaborative and resilient with the back and forth between distance learning and face-to-face classes,” he said.

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

The daily number of cases in London and Middlesex County has been rising steadily since mid-March.

School boards are not the only organizations in the London area struggling with staff absenteeism in the final stages of the pandemic.

The London Health Sciences Center reported 294 COVID-19 cases among staff on Friday, up from 218 about a week ago. Every positive employee must isolate at home for 10 days.

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

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

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