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Cowichan Valley elementary school closing for a week due to COVID

Cowichan Tribes says the number of staff absent is impacting the ability to safely run the facility.
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Cowichan Tribes' Quw'utsun Smuneem Elementary. VIA GOOGLE STREET VIEW

Cowichan Tribes has announced a “functional closure” of Quw’utsun Smuneem Elementary for the rest of the week due to the rapid spread of COVID-19.

It says the number of staff absent is affecting the ability to safely run the facility. The school has 111 students.

The goal is to reopen next Monday.

“Our teaching staff are looking for ways to support connections during this closure, where possible,” Cowichan Tribes said in a statement.

That could include online learning or learning packages delivered to students’ homes.

“We are also looking at ways to support student wellness, such as delivering nutritious daily lunches and snacks, as well as daily check-ins.”

Cowichan Tribes spokeswoman Darcella Kasokeo said the closure is not so much about how many staff members are away as it is about “the important role that all our staff play across the board.”

The number of absentees has been closely monitored since the beginning of January, she said.

“We’ve just really reached our internal threshold that we’ve identified,” Kasokeo said. “With Omicron, I can’t believe how it’s really spreading fast.”

Cowichan Tribes also operates a high school with 18 students. Both it and the Cowichan Tribes daycare have been able to keep running.

The situation at the elementary school has not been accompanied by any sharp increases in absenteeism among students or staff in the neighbouring Cowichan Valley School District.

A number of B.C. schools have declared functional closures since the holiday break, including Hazelton Senior Secondary and Surrey’s Bibleway Christian Academy.

Island Health has not ordered any school closures due to high absenteeism to date. Public health is notified if a school’s attendance drops by 10 per cent of normal.

School staff shortages across B.C. led to the announcement last week of the cancellation of Grade 10 and 12 asseessments for the rest of the month. Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association president Winona Waldron said the announcement came just as the Greater Victoria School District was dealing with 30 teacher absences that had to be filled with vice-principals and others.

“Folks has to be redeployed to cover those absences,” said Waldron. “That’s a pretty huge number.

“So unless that tapers off I think we could well be looking at either a functional closure or a health closure here in Victoria.”

Waldron’s group has about 2,000 members.

Saanich School District superintendent Dave Eberwein said that staff absenteeism has not been a big problem in his jurisdiction.

“We’ve been fortunate so far that we’ve been able to replace most staff who are away due to illness,” he said. “We are monitoring it twice a day and seeing if there are any particular areas that we need to focus on.”

Teachers and other staff have been replaced by on-call workers, as needed, Eberwein said, and the district hasn’t approached the point of having to close a school.

“There have been some increased absences among staff, but we’ve been able to manage it so far.”

The district has about 500 teachers.

Student absences are a combination of illness and parents choosing to keep their children home when they hear about COVID-19 cases, Eberwein said.

“We’re monitoring the attendance as a trend over time to see if we’re seeing increases or if it’s stabilizing.”

jbell@timescolonist.com