It’s been a debate and discussion throughout the entire COVID-19 pandemic: is it safe for students, teachers and other staff to be in schools?
There’s no simple yes or no answer, but now that more transmissible variants have taken over in Alberta, it’s a question that’s being pushed again.
“As a pediatrician and father I completely understand the importance of trying to keep our schools open as places for children to go for their intellectual, emotional and developmental growth,” pediatric infectious disease specialist Dr. Jim Kellner said.
“But the schools, at a time like this, where we’re dealing with so many cases and there’s a third wave upon us, can be a place where there’s a risk of bringing cases into schools and transmission in schools.”
Global News requested and tracked the total number of variant cases and spread in schools semi-weekly since the beginning of March, from data provided by Alberta Health.
Here’s a summary of what we found:
- March 1: There were 47 total variant cases in 28 schools. The virus spread in six of those schools, with 15 students catching a COVID-19 variant from in-school transmission.
- March 17: Total cases more than doubled to 99 in 53 schools. The virus spread in 15 of those schools which led 40 of those cases.
- April 7: There were 611 total cases in 234 schools. The virus spread in 96 schools with 338 people being infected while at school.
- April 23: Total cases hit 1,932 in 663 Alberta schools. The virus spread in 287 schools which led to 848 of those cases.
“At a time where we have so many cases in the community and these variants that are more transmissible, what we’re doing to keep schools safe doesn’t work as well as it did with previous strain,” said Kellner.
The Alberta Teachers’ Association said while the province announced there would be “robust plans” for when schools reopened post-Christmas, no new province-wide protocols have been put in place.
“Right now, we are hearing that we just need to continue on with the protocols we have in place,” Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said during a previous interview on April 7.
“Of course we are monitoring those variants very closely, and if (Alberta chief medical officer of health) Dr. (Deena) Hinshaw and her team tells us we need to up our protocol, we certainly will.”
The province introduced a rapid test pilot project at two Calgary schools in mid-March to help detect asymptomatic cases in schools with outbreaks.
In the second week of April LaGrange announced that program would be expanding to 300 Alberta schools.
Multiple school districts in Alberta have requested the province allow them to shutdown in-person learning for schools for grades 7-12 for at least two weeks, as the impact of variant cases has become too much to keep schools operating.
The government said school boards can request that schools be moved to online learning based on four primary criteria:
- A chronic substitute teacher shortage
- A significant number of students and staff in quarantine or isolation
- Recent requests from the board for short-term shifts for schools
- Substantial COVID-19 cases in the community
Alberta’s Ministry of Education said six school boards, including those in Calgary, Edmonton and Fort McMurray, have all been granted their requests to temporarily move grades 7-12 online.
One school district, the Black Gold School Division, was denied its request to move online.
“We may have to leave schools closed for a while to help us get through this third wave,” Kellner warned.
“Variants are definitely spreading a lot faster in schools than the regular strain was,” said visual communicator Aryn Toomb, who has been tracking and graphing the province’s COVID-19 school data.
“When we’re looking at the in-school transmission rates of variants of concern, we’re seeing that that increase is exponential,” Toomb said.
“I think we’ve always known this virus spreads in kids,” said pediatric infectious disease pediatrician Dr. Cora Constantinescu. “Before variants, we didn’t see that to the same extent but with variants we’ve seen it more.”
Global News requested an interview with LaGrange, but was told her schedule could not accommodate an interview at this time.
A statement from the minister’s press secretary read in part:
“Alberta Health and Education are keeping a close eye on the COVID-19 situation in schools, including cases of the variants,” Nicole Sparrow wrote.
“The province is committed to continuing in-person learning for the largest number of students possible. However, we are ready to make changes when necessary based on the advice of the chief medical officer of health.”
Alberta Education also did not answer questions about whether more protocols would be implemented, or why it’s up to school boards to determine when classes should move online.
How do COVID-19 variants impact kids health?
COVID-19 cases in Alberta kids have hit an all-time pandemic high according to Alberta Health.
Pediatric infectious disease physicians say there is still a lot to learn about the impact COVID-19 and variants have on kids.
Worldwide evidence so far shows most children and teens are rarely sent to hospital and very few have died from COVID-19, but there have already been documented impacts — including in Canada.
“We know that some kids can be asymptomatic, mildly symptomatic (but) even those kids can have long-term effects,” said Constantinescu, who cited ongoing clinical research.
“Even kids with mild symptoms can develop inflammation. It’s a multi-system inflammatory syndrome, so its inflammation in many parts of the body. It can be in the abdomen, heart, other places can get inflamed as well, but we don’t really know what the long-term effects are. We know we have some ways to treat it — but we don’t know what’s going to happen in five to 10 years for these kids.”
Concern for teachers and school staff
“Anxious. Concerned. Scared.”
Those are the emotions Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) president Jason Schilling has heard from teachers when it comes to rising COVID-19 cases and variants in schools.
“This third wave is breaching into the walls of our schools and teachers are concerned about that,” Schilling said.
One of the biggest pushes from the ATA right now is advocating for teachers to be prioritized for vaccines.
“Teachers really wanted to hear they would be a priority for vaccination so they can have that extra level of safety going into their classrooms.”
While some other provinces have prioritized teachers and other frontline workers outside of the healthcare field for vaccination, Alberta has not.
Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommends that essential workers who cannot work virtually are a key population for vaccine priority. The Government of Canada includes teachers on the list of those who are deemed essential.
As we hit the end of April, there is limited time left in the school year.
The Ministry of Education and the Calgary public and Catholic school divisions have extended online learning for grades 7 to 12 until at least May 17.
While the the province is in the midst of the third wave, there is hope on the horizon with vaccines rolling out across Alberta and what that will mean for the next school year.
Most kids aren’t eligible to be vaccinated right now (aside from those 12-18 with serious underlying health conditions), but with vaccines expected to be offered to adults in the general population by the end of June, the province will start to move closer to herd immunity.
Physicians warn COVID-19 won’t completely be gone with mass vaccination, and say steps like expanding rapid testing, will make a big difference.
“If we can incorporate, more routinely, a rapid testing approach, we may be able to reduce the number of people being quarantined on the basis of being able to do more testing and testing that will help you get a better picture of what’s going on in an individual institution,” Kellner said.