A month into the academic year, the Delta variant is driving higher COVID-19 infections in public-school classrooms compared with last fall, a Globe and Mail analysis has found. Meanwhile, parents and educators in several parts of the country are scrambling to get a handle on cases in the absence of reliable data from provincial governments.
The Alberta government does not disclose cases in schools, but in Edmonton, 80 per cent of public schools have at least one self-reported COVID-19 infection and, according to a provincial advocacy group, about 10 per cent of all schools in the province have reached the 10-per-cent mark for absenteeism because of the illness. In Saskatchewan, which has one of highest rates of hospital admissions and deaths, around 10 per cent of cases are related to schools – meaning they include students, teachers and staff – but the province’s data lags as much as a week behind. One in four COVID-19 infections in Quebec are tied to schools. In Ontario, one in five cases are school-related, compared with just seven per cent last fall.
The role that schools play in the spread of the virus has been the subject of debate since the pandemic started. Clear answers are still hard to find because so much depends on the amount of virus circulating in the community, and on the infection-control measures taken inside schools, including masks and physical distancing. Although Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination rate is among the highest in the world, parents, educators and doctors fear that the more-transmissible Delta strain and the fact that the jabs are not yet approved for children under 12 could upend a third year of schooling.
Already, school-aged children account for a rapidly rising share of COVID-19 infections across Canada. In Alberta, children aged five to nine make up the highest case rate of new COVD-19 infections compared with other age groups. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, said this week that children aged 4 to 11 now have the highest COVID-19 case rate of any demographic, the first time this has happened during the pandemic.
Doctors say that most COVID-19 infections in children seem to be mild, and this appears to be true even with the Delta variant. Still, as the virus circulates more easily, the number of severe cases could increase in proportion to wider community spread.
“Schools are definitely a source of transmission,” said Peter Azzopardi, chief of pediatrics at the Scarborough Health Network. “There’s no question that as the community numbers go, so will the school numbers.”
Comparable school COVID-19 statistics are rare among Canadian provinces, but The Globe tallied provincial data, school-board figures and COVID-19 databases (often compiled by parent volunteers) to paint a picture of how the virus is circulating.
In Ontario, schools accounted for 902 cases the week of Sept. 20 – or roughly 20 per cent of the total cases in the province. In the same period last fall, 189 cases, or seven per cent of all cases, were school-related, The Globe’s analysis showed. Similarly, in Quebec, there were 1,290 school-related cases in the same period, accounting for 26 per cent of the total case count in the province. Last fall, 16 per cent of cases were school-related.
Meanwhile, the number of school outbreaks in Ontario has been increasing. So far this academic year, there have been 153 outbreaks in schools, the majority of them in elementary schools, where most students are not eligible for vaccines. (Ontario defines an outbreak as two or more lab-confirmed cases within a 14-day period).
Kieran Moore, the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said this week that most school outbreaks involve three cases or fewer. “This is remarkable in the face of Delta, which typically wants to spread from one to at least seven other individuals,” he said, adding that it is a credit to health and safety measures in schools.
In Alberta, the advocacy group Support Our Students said that, just a month into the academic year, about 10 per cent of schools – 240 – have possible outbreaks, where more than 10 per cent of students or staff are home sick. Seven schools have been temporarily moved online, according to the group’s tracking. The advocacy group said it compiled its information from parents who forwarded letters from Alberta Health Services notifying them of an outbreak, but not individual cases.
The provincial government has refused to compile a centralized list or disclose COVID-19 school cases. Alberta, whose health-care system is being crushed by the fourth wave, has also ended contact tracing in schools and lifted a requirement for students to isolate if there is a positive case in their classroom. Saskatchewan, too, does not require students to isolate if they are a close contact.
Lisa Glover, a spokeswoman for Alberta Health, said in an e-mail statement that the government is not reporting cases in the same way it did last year because “outbreaks in schools could be caused by a number of different respiratory viruses, not just COVID.” She added that the government is working on a “reporting framework” for all respiratory outbreaks in schools.
Trustees and school officials are calling on the government to provide them with COVID-19 statistics. Trisha Estabrooks, chair of Edmonton Public Schools, said that it is not sustainable for educators to be tracking cases: There are more than 600 self-reported cases in the division, and 171 out of 212 schools have at least one case, the majority of them in elementary schools. Parents are pulling their children out of school because they hear of the alarming increase, she added.
“Each day that passes means more cases in our schools. The longer we go without contract tracing, notification and quarantining of close contacts, the more COVID continues to spread in our schools,” Ms. Estabrooks said. “At what point will this government actually acknowledge that schools are contributing to increased COVID cases?”
Alison Turner’s son, who is in Grade 5 at the city’s Westglen School, had a fever, headache and complained of feeling nauseated in mid-September; he was among the students to test positive for COVID-19. So far the elementary school has seen 76 cases among its staff and students (which number less than 350), and classes have been moved temporarily online.
Many of these illnesses could have been prevented if the government had been proactive in informing schools of positive cases and isolating classrooms, as it had last year, she said.
“I don’t know why we would throw caution to the wind when our kids, who are under 12, are still unvaccinated and at a time when the health-care system is on the brink of crumbling. It doesn’t make any sense,” said Ms. Turner, whose son is now feeling better.
“It’s really frustrating because if we have the protocols in place that we did last year, we wouldn’t have been in this predicament.”
In the absence of reliable government data, parents have created databases to track cases and share information on social media.
Stacey Rudderham, who lives in Fall River, N.S., a suburban community outside Halifax, is part of a group of parents who have been listing COVID-19 school cases on a Facebook page since last spring. As she started compiling information, other parents started sending her exposure notices for their schools, many of which were not listed on the government website.
The N.S. government only began reporting the number of schools with cases this week, after pressure from parents. The list, however, does not indicate how many cases there are in a particular school. Ms. Rudderham’s list has more than 60 cases in schools since the start of the academic year, a greater number than the government’s list. She said that parents want this information – her social media group has been flooded with new members in recent weeks – so that they can make informed decisions about sending their children to class.
“Our list is still not complete as far as we know. We really felt that government should be providing the numbers,” Ms. Rudderham said.
Similarly, Kathy Marliss, co-founder of the B.C. School COVID Tracker, said there has been “incredible COVID spread” in schools in her province. Last fall, three weeks into the school year, her database had roughly 20 school exposures. This year, she said that there were more than 700 exposures in September, affecting about 16 per cent of schools. The database tracks exposure and case information submitted by teachers, parents and school administrators.
“It’s spreading fast and we’re in trouble,” Ms. Marliss said.
After pressure from parents and teachers, B.C. recently reversed course and said it would notify parents about exposures in schools. The province’s top doctor previously said sharing data on cases caused too much anxiety. (On Friday, amid rising COVID-19 infections in school-age children, B.C. also extended its mask mandate to all students, not just those in Grades 4 to 12.)
Ms. Marliss, who lives in Richmond, B.C., is still concerned that the information from the government will not be shared in a timely manner. She spends more than 12 hours a day compiling information for the tracker.
“There’s two moms in the entire province of British Columbia who are tracking all schools, every single district, and supplying information. I’m sure our government could do this much more easily and efficiently,” Ms. Marliss said. “It’s unacceptable.”
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