About 2,000 Edmonton high school students will switch back to online learning on Monday — just two weeks after they returned to the classroom.
Students from both M.E. LaZerte and J. Percy Page schools will move to online learning for two weeks after a number of confirmed COVID-19 cases have been reported in the last week, Edmonton Public Schools said in a news release Sunday evening.
In the past week, there have been 20 confirmed cases at M.E. LaZerte, resulting in about 300 students and 43 staff being asked to quarantine.
At J. Percy Page, there have been 13 confirmed cases, resulting in about 366 students and 17 staff members being asked to quarantine.
The two schools were contacting families on Sunday. The move impacts a total of about 2,000 students.
In-person learning is expected to resume on Feb. 8.
Edmonton Public Schools’ superintendent Darrel Robertson said the decision to transition both schools to online learning came ahead of the division’s shift to its third quarter of the year, when students would be moving into new classes and new cohorts.
“Given the number of cases in a condensed period of time and then the upcoming transition to Quarter 3, we really felt like there was a ‘circuit breaker’ of sorts that was needed,” he said Monday morning.
“As a division, we are monitoring cases in all of our schools in an ongoing basis and it’s when we reach a challenging situation where operationally it’s difficult for us to continue, that’s when we’re making the request to transition.”
Robertson said Monday acted as somewhat of a transition day for students and staff, to ensure everyone had the tools they need to begin learning online. He said staff members are working with families to ensure they have everything they need to continue their children’s education online.
“We lend out technology on a very regular basis — Chromebooks to students who do not have access to technology at home. And we are working with families also on access to the internet,” the superintendent said.
“Our technology team has been working with vendors like — and I guess here’s a little plug for a business — but Telus has provided access, low-cost access — I think it’s $10 a month — for families if they need to purchase that service and have access to that internet.”
Robertson said contact tracers are working to determine whether the cases are a result of community or in-school transmission. Earlier this month, the Edmonton Public School Board made a request for more detailed information on COVID-19 in schools, particularly when it comes to in-school transmission.
Robertson said the board has yet to receive that information, but added the division is in regular contact with Alberta Health Services.
“When we have cases of COVID, and these two schools we’re talking about — M.E. Lazerte and J. Percy Page — would be no different, Alberta Health Services would be reaching out to us to ask some additional questions, they would send a representative out to take a look at our processes around hand sanitizing, mask-wearing, those things that we know are keeping us safe… and giving us feedback,” he said.
“The feedback that we’ve received, actually, is that our schools are doing an excellent job in terms of our COVID protocols and we will continue to do so.”
Robertson said the information the division has received from Alberta Health is that the majority of cases are coming from outside of schools, but added the province has indicated there has been some in-school transmission.
On Monday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw said there were 259 schools on alert status and nine on outbreak status. That represents about 11 per cent of schools in the province.
In total, there were 500 cases of COVID-19 in schools, according to the province’s chief medical officer of health.
Hinshaw said in-school transmission has been reported in 51 schools, with 39 schools having only one new case as a result of that transmission.
“We know that schools, like any other institution, they are vulnerable to community spread,” Hinshaw said Monday. “With the concern about the variant, we are watching that very closely to determine if there may be any extra steps that are necessary.”
Hinshaw said when it comes to the formal in-classroom environment, the health measures that are in place do mitigate the spread of the virus. However, transmission can increase significantly if measures are not followed in less formal environments, she explained.
“In times outside of those formal environments — so at break times, lunchtimes, after school — when they don’t follow distancing, when they don’t follow continuous mask use, that that raises the risk of transmission significantly,” she said.
“It’s a reminder to all of us — whether it’s schools or any other settings where people are attending in person — that there is no time when we can let our guard down. It doesn’t matter if it’s lunchtime, break time, after school or after work. Any time that people are together in close contact without using precautions, not wearing masks and in a closed environment, the spread of the virus can happen and that certainly is what we’re seeing in some locations.”
An email from Education Minister Adriana Lagrange’s office said the government approved the requests for the shutdowns out of an abundance of caution.
“We consider the operational needs of the school – such as having numerous staff in isolation that makes it hard to continue with a high level of learning for students in school – when making this decision,” wrote Justin Marshall, the minister’s press secretary.
He said that, as of Friday, more than 90 per cent of schools in the province had no known cases of COVID-19 and less than half a per cent of students and staff were confirmed to have been infected.
While contact tracing had become a challenge ahead of the winter break, Robertson said it appears to have improved during the first couple of weeks back in class.
“Our observations since returning from winter recess have been that Alberta Health Services is getting back to us on each case within a day. And on many of those cases, the same day,” he said.
“I guess that would be evidence that they have caught up and I also know they prioritize school cases of COVID in their contact-tracing protocols, or that’s what I’ve heard from Alberta Health Services.”
This is the second time this school year that some students have made the switch.
In late fall, Alberta moved all students in Grades 7 to 12 to online learning as the province struggled to rein in a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases and outbreaks in schools.
Those students moved to online learning on Nov. 30 while students in kindergarten to Grade 6 moved to online learning for the week after their winter break concluded.
On Monday, Jan. 11, all Alberta students who elected to continue in-person learning returned to their classrooms.
With files from Phil Heidenreich, Global News and The Canadian Press.