COVID-19 surge leads Edmonton schools to consider potential move to online classes

As Calgary junior and senior high students prepare for another pivot to online school, education leaders in Edmonton are questioning whether they should do the same.

On Wednesday, Edmonton Public schools had almost 900 students and staff members in quarantine from possible exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19. A substitute teacher shortage left 27 classes with no sub to jump in.

At a Tuesday board meeting, superintendent Darrel Robertson said the idea of transitioning students in grades seven to 12 to online classes “should be closely examined.” That would leave enough substitutes free to keep elementary classes covered in the division, he said.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Edmonton Public Schools has jumped significantly during the last week, he said.

Although the school division’s case and quarantine numbers were higher last fall, board chair Trisha Estabrooks said the current trajectory of cases is concerning, given that the more contagious variants of concern now dominate infections in Alberta.

“This pace of growth of the variant that we’re seeing in our schools… is suggesting that we could very quickly be in a situation where we’re going to have to pivot to another scenario,” Estabrooks said in an interview Wednesday.

Edmonton Public School Board Chair, Trisha Estabrooks, said the current trajectory of COVID-19 variant cases in the school division concerns her. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Last November, when the provincial government pushed all junior and senior high classes online across Alberta, Edmonton public was seeing substitute teacher shortages of 100 per day.

Calgary cases exceed Edmonton’s

It was exactly that operational snag that prompted Calgary’s public and Catholic school boards to request the education minister’s permission to move older students out of classrooms once again.

Minister Adriana LaGrange said she had not received requests from any other school boards to make a similar move, including Edmonton public and Catholic schools.

Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said in an email there is no specific threshold that would prompt health officials to order a halt to in-person classes.

More Alberta schools are now grappling with cases than at any previous point during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 19 per cent of the province’s schools were on outbreak or “alert” status, meaning one or more cases of COVID-19 had been identified in a student or staff member. Person-to-person transmission was suspected in 399 schools.

The City of Calgary had 77 schools with outbreaks and 62 with alerts (two or more cases), whereas Edmonton had 13 schools with outbreaks and 31 on alert.

The number of cases in children and youth ages 5-19 is also the highest it has been to date, according to data from Alberta Health.

Parent takes proactive measures

When cases do show up in schools, some parents aren’t waiting around to see if the virus will spread.

Nicole Barker’s seven-year-old daughter Lily is in Grade 1 at Holyrood elementary school.

When three people in the school were diagnosed with COVID-19 last week, and 55 people sent home, Barker decided to voluntarily take Lily out of classes for a week.

She says she’s afraid of her daughter getting sick, of making her sick, and of them potentially and unknowingly infecting other people.

Edmonton Public Schools’ deadline for students to switch between online and in-person classes passed in March, Estabrooks said. Although a record high number of students (74 per cent) chose in-person learning for the last quarter of the year, about 300 students have made a late request to transfer to online.

In a statement, Edmonton Catholic Schools’ spokesperson Christine Meadows said about 1,000 students and staff are currently in isolation. She did not directly answer questions about whether that division is considering whether any grades should return to online classes.

Meadows said the number of substitute teacher shortages fluctuates daily. Students in Catholic schools are unable to move between online and in-person classes — they had to make one choice last fall.

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