N.B. school administrators not surprised by surge in student absentee rate

Quispamsis Middle School reported a case of COVID-19 on Jan. 18, 2021. Tim Roszell/Global News

Anglophone education administrators in New Brunswick say a jump in student absenteeism this week was not unexpected after the provincial government moved to keep schools open during the red phase of COVID-19 recovery.

More than 6,000 students — about 27 per cent of enrolment — did not attend classes Thursday in Anglophone School District South, which covers the Saint John region.

That’s up slightly from Wednesday’s 23 per cent, which came on the first day of the health region’s shift to the red phase.

Read more: New Brunswick parents, teachers unions express concern over open schools in ‘red’ zones

Superintendent Zoë Watson said the rates are especially high at schools like Millidgeville North School, Quispamsis Middle School and Princess Elizabeth School, where recent cases of COVID-19 have been reported.

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But she said officials saw a similar trend in student absenteeism in November when the region moved from yellow to orange.

“It was up around the 28-30 per cent absence rate and then day by day that did come down,” Watson said. “And (by) early December, it was back down again into the teens.”

Anglophone School District West reported a 17 per cent absentee rate Thursday, down slightly from Wednesday’s 18 per cent.

Superintendent David McTimoney said the decision to keep schools open in the red phase, announced Sunday by Education and Early Childhood Development Minister Dominic Cardy, came as a bit of a surprise, but he said it was not something staff couldn’t handle.

Click to play video 'Parents taking their time before sending their children back to class' Parents taking their time before sending their children back to class
Parents taking their time before sending their children back to class – Jan 21, 2021

He said schools and teachers are managing well through the early days of the red phase because they have adjusted plans regularly throughout the pandemic.

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“We know that there is some anxiety out there,” McTimoney said. “That’s understandable, but we also need to place our trust in the leadership within public health who have said time and time again that the best place for students right now is in the school setting.”

Cardy’s announcement drew criticism from parents who suggested the decision made little sense after months of preparing for at-home learning in the red phase.

An online petition urging the government to close schools during the red phase had over 21,000 signatures late Thursday.

Click to play video 'Woman launches petition to convince N.B. government to close schools' Woman launches petition to convince N.B. government to close schools
Woman launches petition to convince N.B. government to close schools – Jan 19, 2021

Teachers’ unions in the province said they were also caught off-guard by the move.

Gillian Jackson, a mother of two in Moncton, said she and her husband opted to take their children out of school while monitoring COVID-19 case numbers in their area. She said they will stay home, at least until the numbers stabilize.

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“I work from home,” Jackson said. “I’m home, but I’m working, so homeschooling is really not an option. I’m trying to get them to do some stuff right now and I just heard a basketball bouncing, so I know there’s no schoolwork going on.”

Read more: N.B. education minister urges families not to make March break travel plans

Anglophone School District North said its absentee rate went from 13 per cent Wednesday to 12 per cent Thursday.

Superintendent Mark Donovan noted an increase in the rate in a statement Wednesday.

“It is important to remind all stakeholders that when schools are open, they are safe places for both students and staff,” he said. “We will continue to work with both EECD and Public Health to ensure that safety remains our highest priority.”

Anglophone School District East did not respond to a Global News request for an interview and information.

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