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A wave of respiratory infections is sweeping through Alberta’s student population at rates not usually seen this early in the year, with some schools reporting more than one in five kids off sick and school boards struggling to find substitute teachers.

In recent days, at least two dozen schools have surpassed absentee rates of 20 per cent. This is double the rate that triggers Alberta Health Services to place an institution on “outbreak status” because of the spread of diseases such as COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, more commonly known as RSV.

When this happens, parents are notified of the outbreak and school staff are provided with recommendations from AHS on how to prevent further spread of illness. Additional measures, such as enhanced cleaning and postponement of group events, may be proposed by AHS, but fall under control of school authorities.

The provincial government and school districts in the province’s two largest cities say they have no immediate plans for stricter health measures in response, but say they are watching the situation while encouraging students to take their own steps to protect themselves.

Nearly 13,400 students in Edmonton’s public school system were absent on Wednesday, representing about 13 per cent of the student body. This was three times higher than the month earlier, according to the Edmonton Public Schools dashboard.

Veronica Jubinville, a spokesperson for the public school division, said in a statement on Thursday it is committed to maintaining in-person learning for students, even as absentee rates rise, but principals can choose to move an event online or cancel it entirely. During the first week of November, staff absences ranged between 6 per cent and 14 per cent depending on the day, but were also a result of professional learning, bereavement, family illness and field trips, she said.

Last Friday, the day when the highest number of staff were absent, 84 teaching assignments went unfilled. “The division continues to work hard to fill teacher vacancies so that classes can remain in-person,” Ms. Jubinville said.

Earlier this week, the Catholic school division in Edmonton sent a letter to guardians that said it “may be necessary to shift individual classes or grades to online learning as required due to operational challenges” after a “significant increase” in reported illnesses.

But Christine Meadows, a spokesperson for Edmonton Catholic Schools, said in a statement that there are no plans to move to online learning and it would only be considered “after all other options to maintain in-person learning for that class have been exhausted.”

She said approximately 7,000 students, or 15 per cent of the student population, were absent daily from Monday to Wednesday. A rise in teacher absences because of illness led the district to modify policies, such as postponing professional development absences, to limit the use of substitute teachers, Ms. Meadows added, and she said the situation has since improved.

In Calgary, Felicia Zuniga, spokesperson for the Catholic school district, said about 20 per cent of 117 schools are currently seeing absentee rates greater than 10 per cent. She added that more than 1,500 guest teachers are filling in for absent staff. None of the division’s schools have moved to online learning and Ms. Zuniga did not comment on whether that is an option.

In public schools, the absentee rate has been hovering around 12 per cent from Monday to Wednesday with, at most, approximately 16,000 students absent on a single day.

Joanne Anderson, a spokesperson for the Calgary Board of Education, said the spike in absences has been occurring over the past eight school days and about 15 per cent of schools have surpassed the 10-per-cent mark, but in-person learning remains.

“As the situation continues to evolve, CBE will consider where operational pressures may require shifts to learning,” she said.

AHS declined to provide data on the number of current respiratory illness outbreaks identified in schools across Alberta, but spokesperson Kerry Williamson said the public agency has tracked an increase in school outbreaks, particularly in the Edmonton health zone, and that there are more cases than normal at this time of year.

Mr. Williamson said more parents may be keeping their children home when they’re sick than in the past, which may be contributing to increased absences. He added that pediatric emergency departments have been busy.

Wing Li, a spokesperson for Support Our Students Alberta, a non-partisan public education advocacy organization, said more needs to be done to protect students and their families, who are facing increased stress, anxiety and hardship as a result of spiking illnesses.

She said Premier Danielle Smith’s promise to prevent schools from requiring masks has put school boards in a tough position. Coupled with limited guidance from public health officials, there is no clear path forward, Dr. Li said.

“Where is the chief medical officer of health?” she said. “Last year, we at least had those updates or even public health guidance in terms of how to deal with increasing frequency of sickness. None of that this year.”

She added that schools should not be left to make public health decisions and that people with authority and expertise need to step up and implement temporary interventions when necessary. “But what we’re hearing over all is just radio silence,” Dr. Li said.

Ms. Smith said last month that she would ensure mask mandates don’t return to K-12 schools and directed Justice Minister Tyler Shandro to assess whether to appeal a recent court ruling, in which a judge concluded the United Conservative government’s decision to lift mask mandates in schools in February was unreasonable because it was made by cabinet and not the province’s chief medical officer of health.

Steve Buick, press secretary to Health Minister Jason Copping, and Savannah Johannsen, press secretary to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said in a joint statement that an early rise in respiratory infections was expected, considering lower infection levels of non-COVID viruses over the past two years when stricter public health measures were in place.

Widespread COVID-19 vaccination coverage and greater access to treatments for the virus led the government to transition back to “long-standing practices” to manage respiratory infections, which includes notifying schools of outbreaks, they said.

“Levels will fluctuate over time and between communities. We encourage Albertans to judge their risk at any point in time and take appropriate precautions, including wearing a mask if they choose,” said the statement.