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Bowness High School reported a COVID-19 case in Calgary, Alta. on Sept. 8, 2020.Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

Alberta has ordered hundreds of students to stay home from school after they were potentially exposed to the coronavirus at their respective institutions across the province, just days after pupils returned to their classrooms.

The isolation restrictions will last two weeks, even if a person who was potentially exposed to the infection tests negative for COVID-19, according to Deena Hinshaw, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health. Alberta counted 1,692 active cases of COVID-19 as of Sept. 7, the highest since May 9, when the pandemic first gripped the province.

Alberta is loathe to impose restrictions that would temper its economy, but Dr. Hinshaw said if community transmission continues to rise, the province’s education plans may have to change in areas where the infection is spreading quickly. But even without official restrictions, the virus has already shuttered at least one school in the province.

Alberta Health Services, since Sept. 1, has identified 11 different cases where someone who was infectious attended a school, affecting 11 schools, Dr. Hinshaw told reporters Tuesday. The number of schools affected by the virus is likely larger than 11 because the AHS count includes only those who attended the institution while they were considered infectious, she noted when pressed by reporters. All those who are considered close contacts of such a case – including every classmate – must isolate for 14 days. AHS does not believe the identified cases were infected at their respective school.

“I know that it can be frustrating after just a few days in school that they already may need to stay home for two weeks if they are a close contact,” Dr. Hinshaw said. “A single negative test does not assure safety.”

Alberta did not identify which 11 schools were affected by the 11 cases. Scores of schools, however, have sent parents letters or posted notices online about COVID-19 at their institutions. The Calgary Board of Education on Tuesday confirmed four schools in its network had identified a COVID-19 case; Edmonton Public Schools counted one case. Fort Vermilion Public School Division on Monday discovered a staff member tested positive for COVID-19, shuttering classrooms for some students until Sept. 21.

“The decision to transition to online learning was made due to reduced in-person staffing levels available at the schools,” Michael McMann, the division’s superintendent, said on Facebook.

Angela Vernon has three kids in school, including her son Oliver, who attends Bowness High School in Calgary. It is among the CBE schools with a positive case. Ms. Vernon is a single mom and nurse and worried about the possibility of her children being sent home, making it difficult for her to work. The schools, she said, are doing the best they can, but she believes the government has not provided enough support. Information, she said, is sparse.

“It is like jumping off a bridge and not knowing how deep the water is,” Ms. Vernon said about sending her children to school.

Alberta encouraged students and school staff members to get a voluntary COVID-19 test before classes resumed, noted Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta.

“Because we’ve been doing a ton of testing in kids, we’re going to find some positives,” Dr. Saxinger said. She understands why parents might be anxious, but believes it is possible for kids to safely return to schools. It is rare, she noted, for children to suffer from severe outcomes from COVID-19.

Only 3 per cent of COVID-19 patients in hospital in the country are younger than 18 years old, according to Public Health Agency of Canada’s most recent report on the coronavirus. People under the age of 20 accounted for 17 per cent of Canada’s new COVID-19 cases between Aug. 23 and Aug. 29, but just 9 per cent of the country’s total infections over the course of the pandemic, PHAC said in its report published Sept. 4.

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