Six schools in Alberta have transitioned to at-home learning due to COVID-19, Alberta Education confirmed on Monday, affecting thousands of staff and students.
Starting Monday, students from M.E. LaZerte and J. Percy Page high schools in Edmonton who opted for in-school classes will transition to online lessons for two weeks.
The decision was made after 33 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed at the two schools last week, Edmonton Public Schools said in a news release Sunday evening. More than 700 students and staff are already in quarantine.
In the past week, there were 22 confirmed cases at M.E. LaZerte School in Kilkenny, resulting in about 300 students and 47 staff being asked to quarantine, school officials said Monday.
According to the provincial website, the school is under outbreak status. A school is placed under outbreak status when five or more cases are confirmed in an investigation, where the disease could have been acquired or transmitted in school.
At J. Percy Page in Mill Woods, there were 15 confirmed cases in the past week, with 394 students and 19 staff members now in quarantine. The school remains under an alert status.
"The schools are contacting all impacted families," reads a statement from Edmonton Public Schools.
"The schools will use a similar model of at-home learning they used earlier this month and in December when all junior and senior high school students moved to at-home learning."
Students are expected to return to in-person learning on Feb. 8.
Morrin School, about 30 kilometres north of Drumheller, and Blackie School southeast of Okotoks are among the schools transitioning to online lessons, said Justin Marshall, press secretary to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange. The Kisiko Awasis School in the Edmonton Catholic Division is also on the list.
Kathleen Finnigan, superintendent of Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools, said the decision to move all 750 St. Joseph High School students online for two weeks starting Monday was necessary and proactive.
In a statement, Finnigan said 68 per cent of students and 71 per cent of staff at the school are now in quarantine.
The moves come two weeks after in-person classes resumed across the province. In late November, as cases across the province spiked, all students in Grades 7-12 were transitioned to online learning.
Premier Jason Kenney has said the decision to resume in-class learning for older students was based on "carefully considering the importance of attending school in person" as well as "the latest evidence of cases dropping in all school-related age groups in December."
'A circuit breaker'
Edmonton Public Schools superintendent Darrel Robertson said the move to online learning for J. Percy Page and M.E. LaZerte students was prompted by a high concentration of cases and a pending change in the student calendar.
Students and staff across the division will be switching to a new class schedule next week for the start of the third quarter.
"Students and staff will be going to new cohorts," Robertson said during a news conference Monday.
"We just really felt that a circuit breaker of sorts was needed."
Robertson acknowledged that anxiety around the pandemic remains high. He commended division staff for contending with a difficult year for students.
He said the extent of in-classroom transmission is unclear to school officials. Contact tracers are still investigating any possible links between the infections, he said.
Government contact tracers became overwhelmed this fall and school officials were often charged with filling in the gaps. The situation has improved in recent weeks, Robertson said.
"I think it's well known that Alberta Health Services was experiencing some volume with respect to contact tracing," he said.
"Our observation, since returning from winter recess, is that Alberta Health Services is getting back to us on each case within a day and in many of those cases, the same day. That would be evidence that they have caught up."
Robertson said he has called for more detailed data on in-school transmission. He said has instead been assured by provincial health officials that if there is a risk of transmission, or a change is needed in school protocols, school officials will be informed.
"We don't have the in-school transmission numbers as a division but we do have regular communication with Alberta Health Services," he said. "I have confidence in their work."