Alberta students resume in-person learning as pandemic-related restrictions continue

CALGARY — Thousands of children from Kindergarten through Grade 12 will resume in-person learning Monday as pandemic-related restrictions remain in place in Alberta and will stay in effect until at least Jan. 21.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, noted last week that there is little for cause for concern as COVID-19 transmissions in schools have proven rare.

According to Hinshaw, students and school staff account for only 0.4 per cent of  all of Alberta’s cases and data from the fall showed in-school transmission was not the main driver of positive cases.

“In fact, analysis of all of our cases in school-aged children (confirmed) only about six per cent of all these cases were determined to have been acquired at school.”

Nearly 80 per cent of Alberta schools have had confirmed COVID-19 cases and 294 out of the province’s 379 schools have been designated as being in “outbreak status”, with two or more cases on record.

Of those schools, 122 are also on “watch status” as five or more cases have been reported.

Those numbers have prompted some experts to disagree with the province’s claim of low school transmission rates. 

COVID-19 biostatistician Ryan Imgrund believes the positivity rate in schools is actually much higher than what the province is reporting as asymptomatic testing isn’t being conducted.

“What we do not want is to have school reopen prematurely when they should not be open and then have to do this exact same thing come March or April,” he said. 

Imgrund drives his point home with testing data from an Ontario school. Administration thought there was only three positive cases, but 49 cases were confirmed once all 350 students were tested. 

The Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) says the ongoing issues of large class sizes and a lack of support systems for staff remain significant concerns ahead of the return to class.

Jason Schilling, ATA president, is challenging the province to take greater precautions.

“Teachers, students, families and the community deserve to be better protected,” said Schilling. “There is a swath of measures that would help make schools safer and help to keep them open longer that the government continues to ignore.”

The ATA has produced a report outlining eight recommendations that it says would keep communities safe and schools open longer during the pandemic. 

The Government of Alberta is maintaining its commitment of $120 million in school authority funding for this school year as well as $250 million in accelerated capital maintenance and renewal funding, and a $10 million investment in personal protective equipment such as masks, face shields and sanitizers. 

The province says it has also approved the use of $363 million in board reserves for COVID-19-related costs and is ready to make changes to the school re-entry plan as required.

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