By Nikki Jamieson
Southern Alberta Newspapers
With the exception of one region, all students in Alberta returned to their classrooms, as of May 25.
Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said the two-week reset has given the education system time to address challenges caused by the rise in COVID-19 cases in the province during an announcement May 19.
“The education reset we announced earlier in May has been very successful,” said LaGrange. “It has helped to alleviate the operational pressures tied to the rise of COVID-19 cases in our communities.”
The return to schools will apply to everyone in Grades K-12, except students living in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo — who will continue at-home learning until a targeted return date of May 31, due to an abundance of cases in that area.
“It is prudent to extend at-home learning for schools in the region of the Municipality of Wood Buffalo for another week to ensure continuity of learning can continue. Case numbers in this community have not been trending downwards at the same levels of other regions, which means a higher likelihood of continued operational challenges in those schools.”
LaGrange stressed the decision to return to at-home learning May 4 was made by Alberta Education, as at that time, the high numbers of school staff and students in isolation made in-person learning very difficult. While it was a hard decision, LaGrange said it was a necessary one.
“As students return to their classrooms, their safety and the safety of staff remain my number one priority,” said LaGrange. “As the Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw has stated many times, the safety protocols we have in our schools are effective, they are eliminating the risk of wide-spread school transmissions. The robust protocols that have been in place in schools to keep our students and staff safe will continue, including mask requirements, cohorts, screening for symptoms and seating arrangements. That is in addition to the added layer of protection of more Albertans getting vaccinated, including teachers, school staff and students aged 12 and older.”
The expansion of rapid screening testing at schools is also moving ahead as planned in Edmonton, Calgary, Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie and Lethbridge, and it will be available in other communities if needed.
Anyone with a positive screening test is asked to confirm the result by taking a lab-confirmed test at an AHS assessment centre, and a positive result on a rapid test will mean the staff or student will need to be in isolation for 10 days from that date, unless the follow-up test through AHS is negative, in which case they can return to school.
When asked how they can be confident in-school transmission won’t be a major problem, Hinshaw said they’ve been closely watching trends, and they have been very cautious in their approach to in-school precautions, with the entire class — an average of 30 people — needing to isolate if one person tests positive.
“When we’re looking at the impact of COVID-19 on schools, a lot of the impact began when community transmission rises and we’re seeing high rates in the community, there are many more of these exposures happening in schools (then),” said Hinshaw. “As we look closely at transmission patterns over the last year, we certainly see some occasions were there have been transmission instances in schools, but often, what we’re seeing is a pattern where there may be, for example, students that are in class together who have also attended a social gathering outside of school, and we often see those social gatherings as the source of a significant amount of spread that then impacts school if people are in school when infectious.”
“We have not seen schools as we’ve been watching our case counts and our outbreaks, they have not been a significant driver of community spread.”
With community transmission numbers falling and more and more people getting vaccinated, the protocols in place and the rapid screening approach will help make schools “safer than they have ever been.”
When asked about concerns over the province yo-yoing between online and in-person classes, especially as numbers are just starting to fall, LaGrange said there is a robust plan in place and they’ve addressed cases as they arise in schools, with school divisions and authorities having the ability to isolate a classroom, grade or school, with input from Alberta Education and Alberta Health.
“What we’ve really tried to do is minimize the yo-yoing. Unfortunately, at times it has been necessary, but we have been able to keep our schools open right through the whole school year,” said LaGrange, adding students wanted to end the school year with their classmates. “I sincerely appreciate the efforts of everyone in our school system and in our school communities, for your continued dedication to supporting students learning during a global pandemic. I know it hasn’t been easy, and I thank you so much for all you’ve been doing. I’m confident students will finish this challenging school year learning in their classrooms.”