The Alberta government is reinstating COVID-19 contact tracing in schools.
Premier Jason Kenney, Health Minister Jason Copping and Education Minister Adriana LaGrange made the announcement on Tuesday.
“This fourth wave has made things challenging, especially for families of children who are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine and certainly for our schools,” LaGrange said.
According to Kenney, COVID-19 remains a serious threat in the province and cases are growing among children between five and 11 years old.
Contact tracing will return in a phased approach. Starting on Oct. 12, school authorities will “support an interim process” for contact notification.
“We will be supporting school authorities as they determine close contacts of individuals who were infectious while attending school and they will notify families of those close contacts,” LaGrange said.
By mid-November, Alberta Health Services will take over the notification process. School authorities will continue to support the AHS team which will focus on school-based exposures and will identify classroom contacts and close contacts through school sports or extracurricular activities.
This new approach to contact tracing will not extend to positive cases from community activities or out-of-school contacts.
New guidelines for schools and parents will be posted on the government’s website.
Starting on Wednesday, Alberta Health will start publicly reporting the name of each school with at least two COVID-19 cases. Outbreaks will be reported at 10 or more COVID-19 cases in a 14-day period that were infectious while at school.
Once AHS takes over contact tracing, there will also be online reporting with the addition of an online map for alerts and outbreaks in schools.
“Parents and guardians will be able to go online and see if their school has cases, just as they did last year,” LaGrange said.
The province will also be introducing a targeted rapid test program for schools experiencing outbreaks. Under that program, students in kindergarten to Grade 6 will be able to be tested at home twice a week. Parents will be able to receive the tests from their child’s school.
“This will give us another way to protect our youngest children who cannot yet be vaccinated,” LaGrange said.
“These tests are fast and easy and will give parents more confidence sending their children to school.”
Alberta hopes to expand the program when capacity allows.
LaGrange also asked school divisions to adopt mandatory vaccination policies for staff.
“I strongly encourage every school authority to require proof of vaccination or a negative PCR or rapid COVID test for all adults who enter a school, including staff,” she said.
Kenney and the United Conservative government had been facing mounting pressure from parents, teachers and the Opposition NDP to reinstate contact tracing in schools.
The Opposition says the measures announced Tuesday by the UCP are “too little, too late.”
“Students, staff and families have been calling out for more safety measures for weeks,” said Sarah Hoffman, NDP critic for education.
“The COVID situation in Alberta schools has spiralled out of control due to the gross negligence of Adriana LaGrange and every one of the UCP MLAs who remained silent while the virus tore through the schools in their communities.
“The UCP have put children’s safety at risk. No other province is seeing the disastrous rate of infection we have in Alberta.”
Hoffman also criticized the UCP’s contact-tracing plan.
“Once again, they are dumping the work onto teachers and principals for another month and a half.
“They have no details about who will be isolated and when, especially in high schools. It is absurd that this contact tracing will not extend beyond the school community, as if the virus stops at the edge of school property.
“This program is not good enough,” she said.
School boards request a firebreak
The move comes as the Edmonton Public School Board is calling the government to implement a “firebreak,” which would see schools across the province shift to online learning for a minimum of two weeks.
The motion was brought forward to public school trustees and passed during a special board meeting Tuesday morning.
The motion will now see the EPSB ask the government of Alberta to implement a firebreak, which includes the shutdown of all Alberta schools and non-essential services to control the community spread of COVID-19. The board is asking for the shutdown of in-person learning for at least two weeks, until community transmission “has substantially reduced.”
The school division does not have the jurisdiction to shift schools to online learning, that move must be approved by the province. Global News has reached out to the Education Ministry for comment and will update this story if a response if received. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange is also set to speak at a 3:30 p.m. news conference Tuesday regarding COVID-19.
Supt. Darrel Robertson said so far this school year, one Edmonton public school has shifted to online learning for a two-week period due to COVID-19 cases. In addition, two classes within the division have taken a two-week break from in-person learning.
“We’re now at that stage where there isn’t a choice,” said trustee Bridget Stirling, who moved the motion.
“It’s not a step that we would take lightly.”
The board has asked that in-person learning continue for students who need specialized supports. The board is also requesting a staged return that prioritizes schools as an essential service that will reopen before non-essential services such as entertainment and hospitality industries.
The request comes amid a surge in COVID-19 cases within Edmonton Public Schools. Robertson said as of 4:30 p.m. Monday, the division had identified 699 self-reported cases of COVID-19 across the division’s 175 schools.
Approximately 67 per cent of those cases are in students from Kindergarten to Grade 6, 11 per cent are in Grade 7-9 students and 13 per cent are in Grade 10-12 students, Robertson explained.
As of Monday, there were 55 self-report cases of COVID-19 in staff members within the division. Robertson reiterated the school division is not receiving official data from Alberta Health Services and that cases are being self-reported by staff and families.
Most of the trustees voiced frustration that they have been forced to make these types of decisions, saying the provincial government should be taking the lead on these decisions.
“I have a lot of hesitancy about voting for this motion. I have agonized over this. I feel like we’re letting families and kids down,” board chair Trisha Estabrooks said.
“I know none of us take this lightly… No one wants to be here. We also don’t want this crisis to continue and fester.
“If the provincial government had prioritized in-person learning from the get-go, I don’t think we’d be needing to have this very tough discussion today.”
Trustee Nathan Ip shared the frustration, calling out the provincial government for a “failure of leadership.”
“School boards have been left in the dark for weeks and months,” Ip said. “We do not have the option of doing nothing. As a board we cannot just sit here idly and do nothing.
“I am deeply, deeply disappointed at our provincial partners, our provincial government for allowing us to be in this position.”
Trustee Sherry Adams was the only trustee to vote against the motion to call on the province to implement a firebreak.
Robertson did not have a day-to-day comparison to what cases looked like at this time last year, but said the division had just shy of 2,000 total cases in schools last year.
The EPSB also passed other motions Tuesday, one of which is to once again call on the province to reintroduce contact tracing and quarantine measures within schools.
Earlier this year, Alberta ended contact tracing in schools and lifted a mandatory requirement for students to isolate after close contact with a positive case.
An advocacy group called Support Our Students, which is tracking COVID-19 cases in Alberta schools, says almost 10 per cent of Alberta elementary and secondary schools have active outbreaks.
Last month, the EPSB wrote a letter to the province asking for the reintroduction of COVID-19 mitigation measures like the notification of positive cases and mandatory quarantine for close contacts of cases.
stabrooks said the board has since met with the education minister to discuss the board’s needs.
“To date though, there’s been no change and our request has not been met, unfortunately,” Estabrooks said.
The Opposition is also calling for a return of contact tracing in schools, suggesting the province use the military to help restart the practice. Eight critical care nurses with the Canadian Armed Forces were to begin work Monday in Alberta hospitals that have been overwhelmed with COVID-19.
NDP critic for Education Sarah Hoffman said many military members who don’t have clinical backgrounds can be trained to contact trace instead.
“The majority of school-aged children cannot be vaccinated,” said Hoffman.
Other recommendations passed by the board Tuesday include requesting the provincial government set ventilation standards in schools, and that the government make at-home AHS-approved rapid COVID-19 testing available to families at no cost.