CALGARY — More than 30 per cent of Alberta schools are currently facing a COVID-19 alert or outbreak and the number of active cases in school aged-children has hit a new record high every day since April 8 — reaching 5,358 cases on Monday. That’s an increase of 707 cases since Friday.
To combat COVID-19, Alberta has banned gatherings of more than 10 people, meaning events like children’s birthday parties are against the rules, but up to 35 children are often still packed into a classroom.
Parents say that’s a non-sequitur, which leads to rule breaking.
“I think it is confusing and I think it’s also lent itself to a permissibility of behavior throughout the entire community, because there’s the separate rules for schools, and who can gather with groups of kids in class,” said Medeana Moussa, a spokesperson for the group Support Our Students and parent of school-aged children.
“Sure there’s masks, sure there’s an intent to physically distance, but we all know classrooms are overcrowded in many circumstances, but yet, you can’t do other things,” she said.
“You can’t go to the library, you can’t have people over to your home. So that is a group of mixed messaging.”
Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw maintains gathering in schools is safer than in the rest of the community because of the strictly enforced health measures.
“The difference between schools and birthday parties, one is that in a school setting, you have the exact same group of kids in that cohort model who are gathering together on a regular basis,’ Hinshaw said during Monday’s regular update.
“And they are doing so for the benefit of their development for their education, which benefits not just those children, but it actually benefits all of us as a as a societal good. Depending on the birthday party, often mask use would not be enforced. There’s no framework within which to ensure that all of those mitigating measures are followed.
“And often there’s mixing of children between different cohorts. So again, we know that right now, the most important thing is to follow the public health measures in place to bring down community transmission so that we are not putting schools at risk.”
The Alberta Teachers’ Association says there are more than twice as many COVID-19 cases in schools as there were in December when the province moved classes online before Christmas.
That move, along with other measures, dramatically reduced transmissions at the time. ATA president Jason Schilling wonders why the same metrics are not being applied now, as more virulent variants are hitting the province hard.
“There are a lot of concerns by teachers about the fact that we see cases rising in our communities, which are going to correlate into our schools. So teachers are concerned about the fact that they can’t social distance, that they have the health protocols that are in place, but maybe they need to be strengthened,” he said.
“They’re also confused as to why, you know, MLAs determined it’s not safe enough for them to go back to the Legislature, but they’re putting teachers and students back into schools.”
Premier Jason Kenney offered school workers a long sought after concession on Monday; prioritizing teachers and school staff — including bus drivers, educational assistants and support workers — for vaccination.
Schilling’s two-word response to the announcement was a blunt.
The move is too little, and too late said Moussa.
“The Kenny government has never prioritized schools since the beginning of this pandemic,” she said.
“Their failure to resource our schools is a real marker of their priorities. They have prioritized casinos operating over schools in the fall. This time, they’re doing a little bit better. They’ve learned that lesson. But they have not done enough. Far from enough.”