Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health acknowledged there will be cases of COVID-19 in schools as the province rolled out its plan to have students in classrooms full time in the fall.
Deena Hinshaw told reporters on Tuesday that public health will “almost certainly” identify cases among students and educators, but measures are being put in place to minimize risk.
“There is no risk-free approach to living with COVID-19,” Dr. Hinshaw said. “We still have to learn to live with it.”
Alberta has become the latest province to announce that students will return to school full time, joining Quebec, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick. It made the announcement amid a surge of COVID-19 infections in the province, with cases accelerating faster than anywhere else in Canada.
There has been widespread debate on the proper way to reopen schools across the country, as governments and public health look to balance safety with the academic and mental well-being of students.
The effect of COVID-19 on children is unclear: Children tend not to get very ill, but public-health officials are still trying to understand how children affect transmission. Some evidence suggests that young children do not seem to transmit the disease to others as often as adults.
Premier Jason Kenney said he was “concerned” by the recent rise in cases in the province, but that the risk to children is low. He cited the success of other countries, including Denmark, in reopening schools. Even British Columbia, Mr. Kenney said, did not experience any outbreaks when it opened schools part time and on a voluntary basis in June. However, only a third of students returned to the classroom in that province.
Under the reopening plan, schools will be encouraged to physically distance students by staggering start times for classes, recesses and lunches. There will be enhanced cleaning of surfaces, more frequent hand washing, and hand sanitizer dispensers at school entrances and in classrooms. The government said that students and staff could choose to wear a mask.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said that if cases appear, a public-health team would go into the school to investigate and do contact tracing. Parents would also be notified if there was a confirmed case in their school. She added that if community cases increase, schools may transition to partial attendance or even remote learning.
Ms. LaGrange had previously proposed three reopening scenarios: a full-time return to school; a partial resumption of in-class instruction; and remote learning. She said the government decided to announce its reopening plans in July so it could given school divisions and parents time to prepare.
The NDP criticized the reopening plan, saying educators and families will be put at risk. Leader Rachel Notley said the question isn’t whether to reopen schools, but rather to reopen them safely and with proper funding.
“[Mr.] Kenney and [Ms.] LaGrange have not capped class sizes or provided new resources for additional staffing or physical separation,” Ms. Notley said.
Brandi Rai, president of the Alberta School Councils’ Association, said she can understand why parents would be anxious about sending their children to school. She was concerned there were no direct guidelines on physical distancing, but was also encouraged that schools would implement enhanced cleaning measures.
The Alberta Teachers’ Association said it wants the government to commit to a number of items, which includes mandating the grouping of students in the “smallest feasible groups” and ensure enough substitute teachers are in place.
“Teachers are looking forward to doing the work they love to do with their students, but we remain concerned by the failure of the government to adequately address their concerns,” president Jason Schilling said.
“Successful school reopening is critical to the well-being of students, teachers, staff, their families and the economy, and it requires the confidence of everyone impacted.”
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