As COVID-19 infections spiked in Calgary, Kristen Dorland made the decision to pull her 11-year-old son Chase out of school in late April.
Chase goes to Elboya School – unlike a typical elementary school, his teachers rotate between classes, teaching different subjects. There had already been an outbreak in another Grade 5 class and Ms. Dorland thought it was only a matter of time before Chase’s class had an outbreak, too.
“I didn’t want him to be in a position to have to quarantine,” she said.
Two weeks later, her suspicions proved true and his classmates were required to self-isolate. By then, the provincial government had cancelled in-person classes in most of Alberta’s schools as part of a series of public-health measures in response to a record-setting third wave.
The government announced last week that in-person classes would resume on Tuesday after a two-week break, which the province said was primarily driven by a shortage of teachers rather than concerns about classroom safety.
Ms. Dorland said she’s glad schools are reopening, but continues to worry her son and his classmates will have to quarantine if another outbreak occurs.
“It’s not just health as in not being sick,” she said. “It’s [also] mental well-being.”
Alberta’s school reopening plan has been met with skepticism by public-health experts and the province’s teachers’ union, who question whether it is safe to move students back into classrooms after only two weeks off, even as the province still faces high hospitalization rates and ICU admissions. The only area where in-person classes won’t be resuming is the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, where students won’t return until May 31 because of persistently high infection rates in that region.
There has been ongoing debate throughout the pandemic about the safety of schools, with governments in Alberta and elsewhere arguing that schools are not a major source of transmission.
At the peak of Alberta’s third wave several weeks ago, the group aged 10-19 was hit the hardest, with the highest per capita infection rate out of any other age group in the province during the peak of infections. The 5-9 age group wasn’t far behind.
Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers Association, said he’s concerned about schools reopening so quickly. He said teachers are returning to school in the “same scenario that they left a couple of weeks ago,” citing high case counts and in-school transmission seen during the third wave.
Mr. Schilling said that while in-person learning is better for students, the government needs to ensure a safe return to schools.
“There is transmission happening in schools,” he said. “Teachers are exhausted trying to mitigate this all.”
The union has repeated demands it has made throughout the pandemic for more rapid testing, smaller class sizes, additional personal protective equipment and extra sanitation staff.
Nicole Sparrow, press secretary for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said in a statement that the province had provided $10-million for personal protective equipment (PPE) and $250-million for maintenance, including HVAC and ventilation upgrades for schools. She said school authorities have also received an increase in operating funding and “flexibility to use their reserves.”
She said the minister would continue to follow the advice of the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw, who has repeatedly said schools are not a major source of transmission.
Last week, Dr. Hinshaw said the province has been very cautious with public-health measures inside schools, including requiring large numbers of students to isolate after exposure.
She said it appears that school-aged students are primarily catching COVID-19 outside of the classroom – for example, at social gatherings or during extracurricular activities.
“As we’ve been watching our case counts and our outbreaks, [schools] have not been a significant driver of community spread, and instead have been impacted by community transmission,” she said last week.
Dr. Hinshaw noted that in December, when junior high and high school students were switched to online learning two weeks before the winter break, cases decreased for students of all ages, even though elementary schools were in session. She said that was likely because of the cancellation of extracurricular activities and other public-health measures that were in place.
NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said the government isn’t doing enough to ensure the safety of students and staff.
“The government had opportunities to make things better and has failed to act every single time,” she said. “They’re setting kids up for another yo-yo, and that’s not fair. It’s not fair to their families.”
The NDP provided recommendations to the province, including holding vaccine clinics at schools for eligible students, increasing the number of substitute teachers and providing more funding for PPE.
Dr. Tehseen Ladha, a pediatrician and assistant professor at the University of Alberta, said schools should be the last to close and the first to open when safe to do so.
But while being in school is essential for students’ well-being and intellectual development, and also for their parents and guardians who need to work, it also does pose one of the highest risks for children, Dr. Ladha said.
“If there’s rampant spread within schools, we worry about increasing cases of MISC [multi-inflammatory syndrome]” in children, she said.
“I think children have been largely ignored during this pandemic because there has been a focus on who gets severe COVID-19,” which fails to consider young people who experience long-term COVID-19 symptoms, Dr. Ladha said.
Children in marginalized communities are at an even greater risk, Dr. Ladha notes, adding that she worries the reopening of schools will disproportionately affect those children and their families – especially if they live in multigenerational households with essential workers.
Dr. Joe Vipond, an emergency-department physician in Calgary and vocal critic of the UCP, said the government is rushing kids back into school without necessary changes to lessen the risk of COVID outbreaks.
While children 12 and older are now able to get their vaccine, Dr. Vipond noted that they became eligible only two weeks ago, which was not enough time for them to get vaccinated and receive the maximum protection the first dose provides. Many teachers have only also recently been able to get vaccinated, he added.
“Why wouldn’t we ensure that every single teacher was at least two weeks postvaccination prior to going back?”
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