Thousands of St. Albert students headed back to school in-person Monday without the masks and test kits the province promised to provide to protect them from the Omicron variant.
Alberta schools resumed in-person classes Jan. 10. The province had extended the Christmas break by a week to give schools time to address potential problems caused by COVID-19, active cases of which had surged to record highs due to the Omicron variant.
In a Jan. 5 press conference, Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said the province would distribute 16.5 million medical-grade masks and 8.6 million rapid-test kits to schools to protect staff and students from COVID. Distribution is set to start that week, with all schools receiving their initial shipments by Jan. 14 — four days after classes resumed.
Ontario, in contrast, switched to online learning until at least Jan. 17 due to COVID.
LaGrange said Ontario was at a different point in the pandemic than Alberta and Alberta’s school boards believed they were ready to return.
“Our schools were safe before the pandemic. They were safe these last two years during the pandemic with all the measures we put in place. With these additional measures, they will continue to be safe.”
Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said the province had to consider the overall health of students and the mental-health impacts of remote learning. COVID-19 infection was of “low but not zero risk to children,” and research coming out of B.C. suggested that in-school transmission risks were relatively small.
“As a parent, I understand the mixed emotions many families may be feeling with today’s announcement,” Hinshaw said, but there were no zero-risk options here.
While in-person learning is important, St. Albert NDP MLA Marie Renaud said in an interview Jan. 10 it is “ridiculous” that the province does not have the resources in place that schools need to keep students safe after an extra week of prep time.
“This government keeps saying how important it is to have in-school, in-person learning, and we agree, but then they fail to do the work to make it happen,” Renaud said.
“As a result, the kids end up back online.”
No masks or test kits
In an email, Alberta Education spokesperson Dylan Topal said schools would get their masks and test kits in waves, with the initial shipment providing 20 masks (two per day for two weeks) and two five-use rapid test kits per student and staff member.
St. Albert Public, Sturgeon Public, and Greater St. Albert Catholic officials confirmed Monday their schools had not received any of these supplies as of Monday morning.
St. Albert Public superintendent Krimsen Sumners said her district was supposed to get 4,000 medical-grade masks from the province, none of which would be sized to fit young children (as pediatric masks were not available). When they arrive, schools will likely give students new masks to wear every day.
St. Albert Public and Greater St. Albert Catholic have also ordered N95 masks for all staff to protect against airborne transmission, Sumners said. (N95 masks block 95 per cent of airborne particles and are generally thought to be better at stopping disease transmission than other masks.) They had hoped to have those masks by Monday, but have to wait until later in the week due to supply issues.
“It would have been best if we had all the [personal protective equipment] prior to the kids coming back,” Sumners acknowledged.
Sumners said Alberta Health Services had also stopped reporting COVID cases to schools, meaning it is once again up to staff to do contact tracing.
Sumners said about eight per cent of district teachers were absent Monday due to illness — far more than the less than one per cent you would expect after Christmas break. While she had about 200 substitute teachers on call, she was concerned many of them would be called to other districts or would refuse to come in to work due to COVID.
“We can expect some significant staffing challenges,” she said, and she hopes schools will not have to switch to remote learning because of them.
Mixed feelings on return
Kristi Rouse, speaking as a parent and not in her role as St. Albert Public trustee, said she had mixed feelings about sending her kids back to school this week. She was able to get test kits and high-quality KN95 masks for her children, but had to spend $400 to do so.
“That’s just not equitable,” she said, and not something every family can do.
Rouse doubted schools would be able to find the staff needed to stay open under these circumstances and criticized the province for not providing clear rules on when it would close schools or how children with disabilities would be supported when that happened.
GSACRD teacher Neil Korotash said he and his kids were eager to get back to school.
“I’m really happy to be going back in class,” he said, adding that it makes little sense to close schools when the province is keeping everything else open.
University of Alberta infectious disease professor and parent Lynora Saxinger said it is tough to judge the wisdom of holding in-person classes at this point in the pandemic. The risk of children getting COVID is “actually pretty high” at this point, with up to four per cent of children in the UK infected, but it is high for all ages.
“The risk of your child getting COVID is high kind of no matter what you do,” she said, but the risk of them being hospitalized with it is pretty low — research from the UK suggests Omicron is about half as likely as the Delta variant to give someone severe illness.
Saxinger said our focus now should be on bending the curve when it comes to infection rates to give people more time to get vaccinated. UK research suggests two or three shots of the vaccine reduces the risk of hospitalization due to COVID by up to 88 per cent, while one shot cuts the risk in half.
Saxinger said there is a good chance high numbers of less-severe COVID infections will cause staff shortages at school and force some students to switch back to online learning.
“It’s going to be quite a roller coaster.”