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Ten per cent of Alberta schools have COVID-19 outbreaks: student advocacy group

"There are 30 to 40 students at a time that are sick at home from some of these schools. [The government has] ignored education completely, while these outbreaks are raging and kids are getting sick."
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Communications director and lead tracker at Support Our Students Alberta, Wing Li, is pictured in Edmonton on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021. Wing Li said she has confirmed 228 of about 2,400 elementary and secondary schools have active outbreaks and is calling for a return to contact tracing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

EDMONTON — An advocacy group and a school board say they fail to understand why the Alberta government is not contact tracing like it did last year even as the COVID-19 virus is spreading at an unprecedented rate among students.

Support Our Students Alberta has been tracking cases since September, when the province ended contact tracing in schools and lifted a mandatory requirement for students to isolate after close contact with a positive case.

Wing Li, the group's communications director and lead tracker, said almost 10 per cent of about 2,400 elementary and secondary schools across the province have been found to have active outbreaks. Ten per cent of students at each of those schools are home sick, she said.

"The acceleration is not something we've seen before," the Edmonton mother of two said Thursday, one month into the school year.

"There are 30 to 40 students at a time that are sick at home from some of these schools. [The government has] ignored education completely, while these outbreaks are raging and kids are getting sick."

Li said she has been able to track infections because parents have forwarded letters to her sent by Alberta Health Services to their children's schools. The letters notify of an outbreak, but not of individual cases.

Trisha Estabrooks, chairwoman of the Edmonton Public Schools board, said masks were mandatory in all classes last year and the government notified schools of individual positive cases. Now, only Grade 4 to Grade 12 students are required to wear a mask and the majority of outbreaks are occurring among elementary school students.

"The provincial government isn't sharing data with us about where these COVID cases are, so we have an inaccurate and incomplete picture of COVID in our schools," Estabrooks said.

"At what point do we acknowledge that the increasing number of cases in our schools is leading to spread in homes here in Edmonton, which potentially is adding to the current crisis in our hospitals?"

No one from Education Minister Adriana LaGrange's office responded to a request for comment, but Alberta Health confirmed the province is not reporting school cases in the same manner this year as the previous year.

"Outbreaks in schools could be caused by a number of different respiratory viruses, not just COVID," said an emailed statement from Alberta Health spokeswoman Lisa Glover.

She said a reporting framework for all respiratory illness outbreaks in schools is expected to be finalized soon.

Estabrooks said parents who are self-reporting have helped the board determine there are at least 800 COVID-19 cases spread across 80 per cent of Edmonton's public schools. The statistics don't include cases parents are choosing not to disclose.

The rate of increase is so rapid, Estabrooks said, that students testing positive at Westglen elementary school grew to 70 from one in five days.

"What's so frustrating is that you think we would have learned," she said. "This is our second year beginning school during a global pandemic.

"We are battling the fourth and the deadliest and the most devastating wave of this pandemic ... and the measures that were in place in schools last year are not in place this year. We need urgent help now."

Li said lack of government support is causing fear and anxiety in students and parents, who are also exhausted.

She said Support Our Students is receiving about 100 messages a day from parents reporting an outbreak or expressing frustration. Estabrooks said she, too, hears from hundreds of parents every week.

Li and Estabrooks said schools have been hugely disrupted as they try to navigate the pandemic under difficult circumstances by combining classes and switching between online and in-person learning.

"The other thing that's happening is that, in the absence of clear data from the government, parents are pulling their children from school," Estabrooks said.

"This is terrible for continuity of learning for our kids."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 30, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press