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Two Edmonton high schools have moved classes online after a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases among students and staff.

There have been 20 confirmed cases at M.E. LaZerte School in northeastern Edmonton, where nearly 1,300 students been attending in-person classes.

At J. Percy Page High School in the city’s southeast, 715 students who had been receiving classroom instruction are now learning at home. Thirteen cases have been confirmed at that school.

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Between the two schools, 666 students and 60 staff were asked to quarantine.

Edmonton Public Schools Supt. Darrel Robertson says he sought permission from the Alberta government Sunday for two-week “circuit-breaker” shutdowns. The Education Ministry approved the request within hours and parents were informed by letter shortly after, he said Monday.

Robertson said Alberta Health has told the school division that most of the new cases reported in the past week came from outside, but there has been some in-school transmission.

“I have full confidence that the contact tracers are going to ... try to provide more of an explanation as to why these particular two areas in the city experienced that number of cases in a short period of time,” Robertson said.

Several cases emerged last week, but additional ones reported over the weekend compelled the school division to act, Robertson said. It also made sense to make the switch to home learning before a new school quarter began and students broke off into new cohorts.

A large backlog in contact tracing had previously been an issue. But Robertson said since the holidays, schools in his division have received notifications of positive cases within a day or sometimes hours.

Monday was being treated as a “transition day” for students and staff to adjust, he said, and equipment loans and technological support are available.

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“There is a lot of anxiety around a pandemic, as everyone can appreciate, and we’re doing our best to take care of each other.”

Learning for Alberta students in grades 7 to 12 shifted online in late November amid a general surge in cases. Face-to-face instruction resumed two weeks ago.

Chief medical officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Monday that 11 per cent of Alberta schools currently had COVID-19 infections and that nine had five or more cases.

She said 51 schools had transmission within the institution, with about three quarters of those having only one new case as a result.

Hinshaw said her office is closely monitoring new, more transmissible variants of the novel coronavirus that have been detected in Alberta.

“There is no time when we can let our guard down. It doesn’t matter if it’s lunch time, break time, after school or after work,” she said.

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The Alberta Federation of Labour said the school shutdowns should be a “wake-up call” for the province’s United Conservative government.

The labour group is calling for mandatory paid sick leave and isolation pay, “dramatically” increased funding for schools and investments in proper ventilation in schools and workplaces.

It also wants proactive inspections of workplaces and a strategy to “crush and contain” COVID-19 as other jurisdictions, such as New Zealand and Australia, have done.

An e-mail from Education Minister Adriana Lagrange’s office said the government approved the requests for the shutdowns out of an abundance of caution.

“We consider the operational needs of the school – such as having numerous staff in isolation that makes it hard to continue with a high level of learning for students in school – when making this decision,” wrote Justin Marshall, the minister’s press secretary.

Efforts in some countries to control COVID-19 in schools by limiting class sizes and using alternate locations made for a more stable and effective learning environment, according to Prachi Srivastava from Western University. She says research shows a lower teacher-to-student ratio also has better education outcomes overall. The Globe and Mail

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