Twelve-year-old Charlie Kozak wasn’t feeling safe about having to be in class Monday.
“It’s a chaotic mess,” Charlie said during a phone interview from his home as he prepared to return to his school in Calgary.
“I know some people in my class travelled out of country over Christmas break. Some people have done unsafe family gatherings. We’re allowed to take masks off at our desks next to them (that) aren’t six feet apart.
While some parents are relieved that students in Grades K-12 are returning to classes after an extended holiday break, many say they are concerned and frustrated about unclear instructions from the Alberta government on how it plans to contain a surge in COVID-19 infections in classrooms caused by the Omicron variant.
The province had an almost 40 per cent positivity rate last week.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange has promised thousands of test kits will be delivered to students and parents over the next few days, but has left it up to schools to report and track infections.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, chief medical officer of health, has said a return to in-person learning is critical and necessary for students’ mental wellness.
“We know the COVID infection has a low — but not zero — risk for children. We also know in-person learning is critically important for many kids’ educational and social development and provides a sense of stability and normalcy in these challenging times,” she said last week.
Charlie’s mother, Dr. Stephanie Cooper, an obstetrician, said she agrees mental well-being is worsening among students, but “mental health is not just about being online or in-person.”
“There’s a lot of other variables that include the stress of not feeling like you have all the information.”
She pointed to a promise made by LaGrange that students will go back to classes with more medical masks.
Some schools have received their masks and test kits, but Edmonton Public Schools, the Edmonton Catholic School District and the Alberta Teachers’ Association have all said there are still kids who won’t get them until days after they return to classes, which could exacerbate the spread of the already highly contagious variant.
“As far as we know, the timeline for getting the medical grade masks, as well as the rapid tests, will be later this week,” Edmonton Catholic Schools chief superintendent Robert Martin said while speaking to 630 CHED on Monday morning.
“It’s my understanding that we’ll be distributing them probably next week.”
Parents are worried about what will happen when kids are allowed to remove their masks.
“They’re going to take off their masks and eat in a classroom for the lunchtime period,” Cooper said. ”None of this makes any sense. Certainly, a lot of parents are left with a lot of questions as to the logistics of how this is going to happen.“
“I don’t have the best mental health either but I feel like COVID wasn’t the thing that affected that,” Charlie added.
“It was the constant fear of what if I get COVID and then someone else gets it? It’s (would be) my fault that I put someone in hospital because I wasn’t careful enough at school, because someone didn’t want to wear a mask.”
Wing Li, an Edmonton-based parent and a volunteer with advocacy group Support Our Students Alberta, said she will continue tracking outbreaks in schools since the government has stopped contact tracing.
Li said she is able to keep tabs on infections because parents forward letters to her sent by schools reporting an outbreak.
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She said she has heard from parents who are relieved their kids are returning to school because they don’t have the resources to keep an eye on them and work at the same time.
“I think the narrative is sold that some of us want to shut the school down, but that’s not the case at all,” Li said.
“We just want safety measures so that it’s not a complete disaster.”
Edmonton Public Schools has written a letter to the United Conservative government saying that despite the extension to winter break, “our concerns with staffing and division operations have not changed.”
The school division along with the Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) have said they are anticipating to once again scramble to find teachers to fill in for those who can’t come in because they are sick.
“We’re just even more exhausted every year that this drags on,” Li said. “We know that we have to maintain normalcy for the kids when it hasn’t been normal for us at all.
“Not having any support adds to that exhaustion and feeling abandoned by policy-makers.”
The Calgary Board of Education said that as of noon Monday, two of its schools had transitioned a total of five classes — three Grade 6 classes and two Grade 7 classes — to online learning. The CBE said the decision to transition to online learning will be based on staff availability and/or student absentee rates.
Staffing in schools remains a significant challenge, according to the CBE. On Monday, there were 681 open teaching positions, 208 of which were unfilled. As of 8 a.m. the school board had a 69 per cent fill rate for staff.
There were 436 support staff absences on Monday, with 99 of those going unfilled.
As of Monday morning, Edmonton Public Schools had 454 teachers absent and 22 of those positions went unfilled. There were also 252 educational assistants out, and 124 of those absences went unfilled.
EPSB noted the numbers fluctuate throughout the day as absences unfilled in the morning may have been filled for the afternoon.
“As of this morning, no classes, grades or schools have been moved online,” an Edmonton public spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Meanwhile, the heads of Edmonton Catholic Schools said 420 out of about 5,000 staff were off sick Monday. The division said 217 of them are teachers, and the rest are educational assistants, office administrators, school psychologists and other support staff.
“At this point in time, we’re able to by and large cover the absenteeism, certainly with teachers that will be done,” Martin said. “It’s along the lines of other support staff that we are experiencing some struggles in that area — but that is happening regardless of COVID.”
Edmonton Catholic deputy superintendent Tim Cusack said the numbers are manageable right now and last week, principals and school leadership teams worked on contingency plans.
“We’re working on alternative plans and communicating those plans with parents and students, should there be any changes perhaps to an academy program or a special program.”
Martin added Edmonton Catholic will be analyzing factors such as absenteeism of students, parents reporting their cases, as well as how COVID is behaving in the community.
“We are going to determine whether or not we’re going to be having class go online for a very short period of time, just to catch up and ensure everybody is healthy and safe in order to come back to the school,” Martin said.
Staffing for bus services is also an issue.
The Calgary Board of Education said it is in contact with its transportation service providers, as well we Calgary Transit, and knows “there may be impacts to on service in the coming weeks.”
The school board said a memo was sent to families last week stating yellow bus service may be impacted by last-minute staffing challenges due to illness.
“Buses may be delayed or unable to run for the day due to driver availability,” the message to families said.
Parents and students are asked to check the CBE transportation website for school bus updates.
“Families should also have back-up plans in place if school bus transportation is unavailable,” CBE said.
The CCSD said it has also been informed by its transportation department that there may be disruptions due to staffing shortages related to COVID-19.
“Both yellow bus service and SPED bus service may be impacted, and it will be extremely difficult to provide advance notice on a day-to-day basis,” the CCSD said.
“Parents/guardians should ensure that their child boards their bus, prior to leaving them. A reminder to please not leave children unattended at bus stops and to arrange alternate plans for children on the occasions when the bus service does not operate or is running behind. ”
The district said it is sorry for the additional challenge this will add for families.
With files from Caley Ramsay and Karen Bartko, Global News.