The Calgary Board of Education is warning parents to prepare for a possible shift to at-home learning if the fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic gets worse.
“We know the spread of COVID-19 has and will continue to impact staffing levels across the organization,” the CBE wrote on Thursday. “Despite increasing our substitute teacher roster and continuously hiring new substitutes, we anticipate staffing challenges will occur.”
The update to parents and guardians comes the day after Education Minister Adriana LaGrange confirmed all students in Alberta will return to in-class learning on Jan. 10.
Read more: Alberta K-12 students to return to class Jan. 10 amid record-setting numbers of new COVID-19 cases
LaGrange also confirmed that medical-grade masks and rapid antigen tests will arrive at schools by the end of next week, and will roll out in phases.
“In the initial phase, students will receive kits to test at home twice per week for 2.5 weeks,” CBE wrote, adding at-school staff will also have access to those resources.
The CBE said it was “exploring other ventilation options,” while acknowledging the role proper ventilation has in student and staff wellness.
On Wednesday, Edmonton Public Schools and Edmonton Catholic Schools announced they were installing new HEPA and MERV 13 air filters in their school HVAC systems.
The public school authority stressed that anyone feeling unwell “must stay home” and recommended using a daily checklist before coming to school.
On Wednesday, chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Alberta Health and AHS will no longer be providing positive COVID-19 case notifications to schools or school boards.
CBE noted that rapid test results are not required to be provided to schools, but asked parents to notify schools when children will remain at home for the school day as “schools will continue to monitor school absenteeism due to illness.”
The Calgary public school division also acknowledged that the rampant spread of COVID-19 may affect school buses “by last-minute staffing challenges due to illness.” Parents can check the CBE transportation webpage for information about delays or cancellations.
Shortly after the education minister announced the one-week extension of the winter break, Calgary Catholic School District published a “January return to school” guide for parents.
A “frequently-asked questions” section of the guide included some information about the medical-grade masks being distributed to Alberta schools.
“Medical grade masks are slightly below the N95 standard,” the CCSD wrote. “The government will be providing two sizes of mask: child size (suitable for students in K-6) and adult size (suitable for students in grades 7-12).”
They said more information about masks and rapid tests will be shared with parents “as it becomes available.”
The CCSD also conceded the highly-transmissible Omicron variant could impact staffing levels.
“Given current community positivity, it is likely that 30 per cent or more of our staff will be required to isolate due to the presence of symptoms.
“It would be impossible to fill this many vacancies from our current guest teacher pool, and equally impossible to maintain continuity of learning.”
Calgary Catholic confirmed it was in the process of installing MERV 13 filters in all of their central air systems, district-wide.
And as of Friday, 88 CCSD teachers tested positive for COVID-19 and were likely not to be in class for Monday’s return from break.
Substitutes a pandemic-long problem
The Alberta Teachers’ Association has been outspoken about staffing in schools and the availability of substitute teachers throughout the pandemic.
“We’re worried that we’re going to once again get caught in this roller-coaster of being in person, being online, being in person, being online,” ATA president Jason Schilling told Global News. “And we don’t want that to happen this year like last year, because we knew it was challenging for students, parents and teachers.”
The ATA president said previous teacher and substitute teacher shortages have impacted in-class teaching.
“I was hearing this just prior to the (winter) break: because (of) the shortage of substitute teachers – especially in Calgary (where it) has been a problem throughout the entire pandemic – they’re doubling up classes,” Schilling said. “So all of a sudden, you have 50 kids in a room with one teacher.
“And that, with this high transmission rate of the Omicron variant, is not good in my mind either.”
Schilling said the association has seen community transmission of COVID-19 “echoed” within schools.
On Wednesday, chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw maintained that schools have not been a significant source of spread of COVID-19 in the community.
“We’ve seen throughout the pandemic that while the risk of introduction into a school is higher when there’s high community risk, the actual school environment continues to be one where there is limited risk of onward spread,” she said. “Again, not zero, but we’ve kept it minimal.”
–with files from Adam MacVicar, Global News