New guidelines for Alberta schools will greatly reduce the flow of information between educators and public health authorities about COVID-19 cases.
The five-page guidance document released Friday says that Alberta Health Services (AHS) won’t tell schools when a student or staff member has tested positive for the illness, and that schools aware of positive cases don’t have to tell AHS.
No one who works in or attends a school needs to share a positive test result with school administrators, though they are still advised to isolate.
The recommendations follow Alberta’s decision to phase out contact tracing in most settings and are a marked change from how schools managed COVID-19 cases during the last school year.
Cases will not scuttle classes, Hinshaw says
At a news conference Friday morning, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, also said classes will no longer have to be sent home to isolate, even if the school is aware of a COVID-19 case.
“We recognize that intervention, which I believe was necessary last year prior to widespread vaccine availability, is highly disruptive and causes significant harm,” Hinshaw said.
The plan was unveiled as daily COVID-19 cases increase in the province, with 582 new diagnoses reported on Friday.
With no provincial school mask mandate included, except on school buses until Sept. 27, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange told school boards it’s up to them to take any additional measures they think are necessary in their communities.
WATCH | Alberta delays plans to remove COVID-19 measures amid rising cases:
Hours later, Edmonton Public Schools revealed all students from kindergarten to Grade 12 and staff will be expected to keep masking this school year.
With children under 12 ineligible for a vaccine and just slightly more than half of 12- to 19-year-olds vaccinated in the province, board chair Trisha Estabrooks said it is the safe and prudent choice.
“Ideally, we want kids in classes learning with their peers, learning face to face with their teachers,” she said. “If we have this measure that will lessen the disruption in our classrooms and keep kids and staff as safe as possible, why wouldn’t we do this?”
At a special public school board meeting Friday afternoon, superintendent Darrel Robertson said he hopes the mandatory masking will encourage more families to choose in-person learning this fall.
Both Edmonton public and Catholic schools extended their deadline for families to make that choice until Aug. 19 at 4 p.m. MT.
Edmonton Catholic Schools said it plans to release its back-to-school plan on Monday.
Critics say return anything but normal
At the news conference, LaGrange heralded the return to classrooms as “normal,” saying students can look forward to field trips, team sports, school clubs and celebrations such as graduation ceremonies.
“It was hard for me to hear that everything is going to be going back to normal,” said Roxanne Weyermann, an Edmonton teacher who has three young children. Her oldest child will start kindergarten next month.
She wanted to see mandatory masking and distancing rules stay in place across the province — at least until children can be vaccinated. She worries children who voluntarily wear masks could be stigmatized.
The Alberta Teachers’ Association was pleased to see an in-school vaccination program beginning in junior and senior high schools on Sept. 7.
But president Jason Schilling said waiting until more than 10 per cent of the school population is absent with an illness before calling AHS, as the guidance recommends, is a “recipe for disaster.” In a large urban high school, it could mean waiting until more than 200 people are sick.
The Opposition NDP slammed the United Conservative Party government’s plans. Health critic David Shepherd said with the end to contact tracing, and paring back of testing after Sept. 27, the government is withholding information parents and school administrators need to make informed decisions about their children’s health.