A school in northern Alberta has been forced to delay the start of in-classroom learning by two weeks due to a case of COVID-19.
The Fort Vermilion School Division said it was informed Monday that a staff member at Fort Vermilion Public School/St. Mary’s tested positive for COVID-19.
Because a number of other staff members are considered close contacts of the person who tested positive for the coronavirus, they have been told to self-isolate for 14 days as per the public health requirements.
As a result, all students at the school started the year out on Tuesday with online learning. In-classroom learning will resume on Monday, Sept. 21.
“Ultimately, we want to look after the safety of all of the kids and make sure that it’s safe and that we can do our part to not pass on the disease,” Fort Vermilion School Division Supt. Michael McMann said Tuesday morning.
“We’re just delaying face to face, that’s all.”
Because of flooding in the northern Alberta community earlier this year, students from Fort Vermilion Public School and St. Mary’s have been combined into one school building so students from both schools are affected, McMann explained.
When it learned of the positive case on Monday, McMann said the school went to work to ensure parents were notified.
“You put your pandemic hat on and try and figure it out before kids arrive Tuesday morning.
“So we knew that we had to work as hard as we could to get everything in place before supper so parents could be notified,” he said.
McMann said all of the school division’s other schools opened their doors on Tuesday morning. He said the division, as well as school divisions across Alberta, will have to continue to react to cases as they come up.
“Going into it, we knew this was going to be fluid and we’re going to have to roll with the punches in the best way that we know how ensuring that the rigor around education is still there. When this happened in March, we weren’t necessarily prepared and I honestly believe that we’re way more prepared now than we were in March and I think that everybody is doing the best they know how and we’re all sort of building the airplane as we fly it, so to speak,” he said.
“I’m very comfortable. I was out this morning in a couple of our communities on bus supervision to look at how it’s rolling out and how the new rules and procedures are happening.
“I’m very excited, the kids are so excited to be back. I’m sure the parents are excited to have a little more freedom too. It’s been a long five months.”
Fort Vermilion is located about 600 kilometres north of Edmonton.
In a statement, the press secretary for the Education Minister’s office said while Alberta’s school re-entry plan has been “based upon the best medical advice of Alberta public health experts,” schools will experience cases of COVID-19.
“As Dr. Hinshaw has repeatedly said, we need to learn to live with COVID-19,” Colin Aitchison said in a statement Tuesday. “Thankfully, the medical evidence shows that school-age children without pre-existing conditions are not highly susceptible to the effects of COVID-19.
“We are monitoring the situation across the province closely, however it is too early to jump to any conclusions as there are still many unknowns, including where students contracted COVID-19 and if any transmission occurred. Alberta Health Services is currently contact-tracing and the proper processes are being followed by the school authorities.”
Alberta’s approach to publicly reporting COVID-19 outbreaks in schools
When it comes to cases of COVID-19 in schools, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said the province will publicly release information when five or more cases are linked to one school.
“That will be part of our public reporting on outbreaks that’s updated twice a week,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said on Sept. 2
However, she said parents, staff and students will be notified even if one case of COVID-19 is identified in a school.
“If there’s even a single case in a school, even if there’s no exposures in that school, parents and staff within that school will be notified.
“And if there is an outbreak — we’re defining that as two cases or more within a school — again, parents and staff will be notified because it’s so important to be transparent,” she said.
“The difference between that local notification — with single cases and with two cases or more — where we’re requiring that local notification but public posting is with five cases or more, is because with respect to public risk, a single case in a school is no different than a single case anywhere else. And even two cases in a school may not necessarily be an indication that there is transmission happening within that environment,” she continued.
“It could be that those cases aren’t linked to each other but happened to have occurred at the same time.
“We have a very precautionary level for outbreak definition so that we’re able to investigate all of those instances as promptly as possible. But at this time, those individual cases will not be attributed to an individual school from the perspective of our overall reporting, but they will be promptly and proactively disclosed to all of those who are within that school environment.”
On Tuesday, Hinshaw said Alberta Health Services had reported 11 cases of COVID-19 at 11 different schools while infectious, as of Sept. 1. She said this leaves more than 2,000 schools that have seen no disruption to class.
Hinshaw said the cases in schools appear to be from community transmission and not linked to transmission in the school.
“The current situation is not unexpected. It’s too early to be able to give an evaluation of our school model,” Hinshaw said.
“We will be watching closely and if our community transmission continues to rise, we may need to look at other models in certain high-transmission areas. We want to make sure we’re giving every opportunity for students to have a successful return to school with everything we can provide in this model before we accept some of the risks that would come with any alternate model.”
Hinshaw stressed that cases of COVID-19 cases in schools are not unexpected.
“The reality is that we have to learn to live with COVID and we have to learn to balance the risk of occasional exposure with keeping our children home,” she said.
NDP calls for cap on class sizes
The Opposition NDP said with cases of COVID-19 confirmed in several Alberta schools, class sizes should be capped and physical distancing measures need to be addressed.
“The premier claimed this isn’t about money, and that if we needed additional resources to ensure the safe re-entry of schools, that resources would be made available,” NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said in a media release.
“It’s time for him to keep that promise – today. It is not too late for the government to act. This first week has gone badly, but there’s still time to prevent the coming weeks from being worse. The government must immediately provide schools with the resources they need to staff up and spread out.”
The NDP would also like to see the government provide daily online reporting of all cases of COVID-19 in Alberta schools.