Calgary board angry with UCP government over COVID-19 in schools

CALGARY –

In a letter written to Alberta’s education and health ministers, one Calgary school board says it is “frustrated” by the lack of direction being given to them amid the rising cases of COVID-19’s fourth wave.

The Calgary Board of Education (CBE) says it is struggling with hundreds of positive cases, which have all been self-reported by students and parents at its schools ever since it commenced with its optimistic plan for in-person learning back in August.

According to its latest information, there are approximately 350 self-reported cases linked to more than 120 CBE schools, with the majority of those being elementary institutions.

Now, in a letter released by the Alberta NDP, they say the government has failed them.

“We are frustrated by the lack of coherent provincial guidance being provided to our families and students,” says the letter, authored by CBE chair Marilyn Dennis.

“Families have received mixed messages about the real and substantial risk that COVID-19 presents to our communities and school jurisdictions are left to fill the public health gap left by the government.”

Earlier this year, the government announced it would not be conducting any contact tracing or notification in schools when positive cases are found and Dennis contends that was a bad move.

“Families have been clear that they want more. We understand that Alberta Health Services (AHS) has information of confirmed student COVID-19 cases and the schools linked to cases. This information, including dates of possible exposure, should be shared with school authorities.”

Dennis adds the situation has impacted learning in schools and the confidence that parents have in knowing their decision to send their children to attend in-person classes is a safe one.

“We expect continued challenges with overall absentee rates for both staff and students exacerbating the learning disruptions already experienced last year,” she said. “Many schools are quickly approaching a rate of absence greater than 10 per cent due to illness. In the absence of communication from AHS, the CBE currently has no knowledge of the actual number of positive COVID-19 cases within our schools.”

As a result, Dennis says the contact tracing program, led by AHS and the provincial government, should be reinstated, families should have access to testing and a strategy should be built for vaccinating children 12 years old as soon as it becomes available.

“We are committed to ensuring our schools are as safe as possible so our students can continue in-person learning,” Dennis wrote. “Supporting the health and well-being of Alberta students is a priority we share.”

‘FAMILIES HAVE BEEN THROWN INTO CHAOS’

The Alberta NDP, which released the letter to the media, says it supports the CBE’s call for a return of contact tracing measures to ensure all positive COVID-19 cases are adequately tracked.

It also says schools need the support they need from the provincial government to combat the fourth wave.

“Schools need access to rapid test kits, and to have on-site vaccination clinics,” said Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley in a statement. “I support calls for mandatory vaccination in the education sector. Teachers are now in their third pandemic school year, and I thank them for their courage, professionalism, and commitment to students.

“All students and families have been thrown into chaos by school closures at least three times across Alberta, and for some, many more times. We must do everything we can to avoid repeating the same mistakes this year.”

Notley says the work to protect students should have been completed well before classes resumed in September.

“I hear the anger and frustration with this UCP government’s failure to lead. All of this work should have been done weeks earlier. Only a month ago, Minister LaGrange promised parents a ‘normal school year.’ Now we are in a province-wide public health emergency.”

SCHOOLS HAVE ACCESS TO TESTING, VACCINES

Alberta Education responded to the statement made by the Opposition Friday evening, saying that educators already have rapid testing available to them and a vaccination program for students aged 12 and older is already underway.

“School boards that are interested in running their own program can request test kits from Alberta Health,” said Nicole Sparrow, press secretary for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange. “School authorities interested in setting up a rapid testing program in a school can contact Alberta Education staff, who are available to answer questions and offer operational guidance.”

Sparrow said students, parents, staff and teachers are strongly encouraged to practice all of the health guidelines, complete their dailly health checklists before heading to class and always isolate if any symptoms are found.

“As Alberta’s School Re-Entry Plan states, we remain in contact with AHS Zone Medical Officers of Health as well as AHS Environmental Public Health Teams, who continue to work with school divisions, like the Calgary Board of Education to address any local issues.”

The statement did not address the CBE’s concern over a lack of contact tracing.

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