At Delnorte School, a primary and secondary school in the Alberta village of Innisfree, roughly 30 per cent of students were out sick with symptoms of a respiratory illness earlier this month. At Dewberry School, about 60 kilometres to the east, 20 per cent were absent. At Cambrian Heights School, in Calgary, nearly 11 per cent of kids missed class for the same reason, according to government data obtained by The Globe and Mail.
Dozens of schools across Alberta have experienced similar absentee rates since classes resumed, without government-mandated public-health restrictions, at the end of August.
But the Alberta government refuses to disclose how many schools have hit the 10-per-cent absentee threshold necessary for the province to declare an outbreak of a respiratory illness, even as parents and administrators say information on the spread of COVID-19 is crucial to students’ safety amid the fourth wave of the pandemic.
Parents, staff and students confused, anxious about lack of COVID-19 safety guidance for Alberta schools
Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange told reporters last month that vaccines had created a situation where parents, students and staff would be able to return to a “normal” school year. As schools reopened, though, some of them quickly landed on the province’s outbreak list.
The coronavirus has forced at least five schools to shift to at-home learning so far this year, according to Alberta Education. School administrators and trustees are now begging the provincial government to provide them with COVID-19 statistics and supports, such as contact tracing.
“Not having information is creating fear, it is creating rumours, and it is creating chaos in our schools,” said Trisha Estabrooks, chair of the Edmonton Public Schools board of trustees. “Schools need to be safe, welcoming, calm places for our kids to go to every day. And this situation is not tenable.”
Alberta Health Services did not reply to a message seeking confirmation of the absentee data obtained by The Globe.
The provincial government has not always been this reluctant to share information. During the previous school year, it alerted local school officials when someone related to their institution tested positive for COVID-19, without revealing personal information. This assisted with contact tracing, and with determining isolation and quarantine requirements for close contacts. But the government eliminated all of those safety measures this year, along with the disclosures.
Now, administrators are relying on voluntary disclosures from parents and staff to track COVID-19 in their hallways. Even when schools inform the province of a respiratory-illness-related absentee rate of at least 10 per cent, it can take six or seven days before Alberta Health Services discloses this to parents, Ms. Estabrooks said.
“It feels like the government is acting as though schools are simply an afterthought,” she said.
When asked by reporters on Thursday why parents are not being informed of COVID-19 infections in their children’s schools, Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said revealing individual health information would violate privacy laws.
Dr. Hinshaw said, as she has in the past, that “large-scale transmission in schools is not common” and “that schools are impacted by community transmission, but are not locations that drive community transmissions outwards.”
But education officials and parents struggle to believe schools are as safe now as they were under last year’s containment protocols.
In Foothills School Division, parents and staff have voluntarily reported 64 new cases of COVID-19 to administrators since classes resumed at the end of August. During the previous school year, when the provincial government informed administrators about every COVID-19 case in their institutions, it took eight months before the division hit 64 cases, according to superintendent Chris Fuzessy.
“It feels like we are going backwards,” Mr. Fuzessy said.
Trina Boymook, chair of the board of trustees at Elk Island Public Schools, said in a statement that parents are nervous about the lack of safety protocols.
“Parents have expressed concern and frustration that there’s no longer contact tracing or mandatory quarantining of close contacts, which may be contributing to the spread of cases in schools and ultimately, in the community,” she said.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and his caucus have spent recent weeks embroiled in an internal battle over Mr. Kenney’s leadership and the government’s approach to mitigating the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, Alberta’s intensive-care units are swamped with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients, and health care professionals have been forced to dial back care.
On Thursday, the head of Alberta Health Services said the province’s intensive-care units are only able to absorb new COVID-19 patients – roughly 23 admissions per day – because other patients are freeing up beds by dying. Surgeries have been cancelled for weeks. The Canadian Armed Forces is bringing in staff and air transport to assist with the crisis.
Children have the highest rate of new infections of any age group in Alberta right now, and represent the only cohort for whom infections have not levelled off or decreased in recent days. There are roughly 56 new daily cases for every 100,000 individuals between the ages of 5 and 9 in the province, and 50 new infections per 100,000 people between 10 and 19, according to government data. The youngest person to die of COVID-19 in Alberta was 18.
In Canada, people over 12 years old have access to COVID-19 vaccines. Pfizer-BioNTech this week announced that its vaccine had produced positive results in trials on children as young as 5. Health Canada and the National Advisory Committee on Immunization must review the company’s data before approving the shots for kids under 12.
Trial results for children six months to five years old could be released before the year is out, Pfizer has said.
With reports from James Keller and The Canadian Press
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