Calgary Catholic school increases safety precautions after district’s ‘explosion’ of COVID-19 cases

Just last week, the number of positive COVID-19 cases in the Calgary Catholic School District was in the low twenties. But over the weekend, there was an “explosion of cases,” which has led some schools to take drastic steps to prevent the spread of the virus.

Chief superintendent Bryan Szumlas says there are now 64 students and six teachers within the district who have active cases of COVID-19.

“Over the weekend, we saw an explosion of cases.… This is like a three times increase in the last five days. I believe this is what we’re seeing now as a result of the gatherings that happened over the Thanksgiving long weekend,” he said. “Within Calgary Catholic, we have 118 schools, and 35 of our schools right now are dealing with active cases of COVID-19.”

Szumlas said dealing with COVID-19 in schools is an always evolving situation.

“After a 14-day period, some of these schools come off the list where others go on the list. Since the beginning of the school year, it has been a roller-coaster of ups and downs,” he said.  “Right now, we are at a low point and we’re asking all of our parents and our students to please be vigilant and to continue to practise our health measures as we go forward.”

Szumlas said there were roughly 1,000 students in isolation last week, but since then that number has more than doubled, and there are now about 2,400 students and staff who are in self-isolation.  

“Now, that number may seem fairly large, but to put it in perspective, our school district has just over 56,000 students. So that’s roughly 3.5 to four per cent of our total population,” he said.

“Of course, it worries me, but I have a lot of faith that working together with our communities, that this is a little blip right now and we can, if we work together, we can change that curve and bring it down, if we’re all working together and continuing to practise our health measures.”

The recent surge in cases at Calgary Catholic has lead some schools like St. Francis High School to take a more severe approach to curbing cases within the school population. 

In a letter home to St. Francis parents on Monday, the principal announced that five families had received confirmation of a student testing positive for COVID-19, and thus 300 students and 12 staff were in isolation.

As a result of the rise in cases, St. Francis will end its fall athletic program.

“This is necessary to reduce staff and students potentially needing to self-isolate because of a positive COVID-19 case. The start of our winter athletic season will also be postponed until we see a drop in positive cases at Saint Francis,” wrote principal Mark Berger.

The school has also chosen to make final exams “write to improve” only (meaning a lower grade can’t bring down the student’s overall mark).

Szumlas said he supports these moves. 

“I do support what this principal and the school is doing. This is innovative, collaborative. They’re informing their parents. We stand behind this and it is part of the assessment practices,” he said. 

Berger’s letter also appealed to parents to not let teens gather on weekends.

“Some of the positive cases reported were associated with weekend student gatherings. We ask families to consider the potential negative impacts of group gatherings on our school community,” said Berger.

“We are asking parents to discuss with their children the importance of social distancing, avoiding large gatherings and the sharing of food and beverages.”

The Calgary Board of Education, since the beginning of the school year, has had 140 positive cases and 80-plus schools affected by them. 

In October, the CBE said 3,300 students and 325 staff members had been impacted by mandatory isolations. 

Of those attending CBE’s in-person learning, five per cent of students and 3.5 per cent of staff have been affected by required quaranties since September.

“To date, we have had six cases of suspected in-school transmission,” said CBE superintendent of school improvement, Joanne Pittman.

“What I would also say, though, is that even with that suspected in-school transmission, individuals who may have then tested positive have already been in quarantine, and as a result, additional actions were not required because of the safety precautions already put into place. “

CBE board chair Marilyn Dennis said parents should be encouraged by these numbers. 

“The fact that we have only 0.1 per cent of in-person students and .06 per cent of staff that have been identified with a positive case, I would think that would be very encouraging for families,” she said. 

“The strength of it is, No. 1, that we have strong compliance due to the protocols we put in place [and], No. 2, that we have been thorough in our response. We think we can be proud of the work that we’re doing in our schools to try and keep our communities healthy.”

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