EDMONTON — Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange says students will go back to classes Monday as planned with more medical masks and COVID-19 rapid test kits.
LaGrange says it's important to balance the rise of the Omicron variant with health protections and the social and educational importance of in-person learning for those in kindergarten to Grade 12.
She says an initial shipment of extra masks and test kits are set to arrive at all schools no later than the end of next week.
"Children who learn in-person belong in the classroom, and they will be there with the added safety of rapid tests and medical-grade masks," LaGrange said Wednesday.
"These will be distributed to schools as an added layer of protection to lower the risk of transmission of the Omicron variant."
LaGrange made the comments as Omicron continued to propel the latest COVID-19 wave higher, with Alberta logging a new high positivity rate of almost 37 per cent.
The Alberta Teachers' Association questioned the delay in getting the masks and kits until after classes resume.
"There is a high level of concern about what will school look like once we start seeing teachers and students back into buildings, especially with a positivity rate like we saw today, so the anxiety level is high," said the association's president, Jason Schilling.
He added the government is making the same mistakes it made earlier in previous waves of the pandemic, when students returned to in-person learning and one outbreak after another followed.
"We should have learned from the mistakes of the past and, I fear, along with many of my colleagues, we will see schools have to move online again, and that is going to be inevitable,” said Schilling.
"I've seen this movie before and I didn't like the ending."
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, announced 4,752 new cases of COVID-19 — also a record.
Hospital numbers continued to rise, with 470 people being treated for the illness, 34 more than reported on Tuesday.
There were 72 patients with COVID-19 in intensive care, a rise of 11 from a day earlier.
LaGrange announced last week that the winter break for kindergarten to Grade 12 students was being extended to Jan. 10 to allow schools to plan for a safe startup for in-person learning. She has since been meeting with officials to assist them and address concerns.
On Tuesday, Premier Jason Kenney said students and staff will be the priority for 10 million new rapid COVID-19 test kits that are set to arrive in the coming weeks.
Kenney said one million kits were received last week and the rest will arrive through mid-January, on top of another four million coming from the federal government.
Opposition NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said the province is denying students health supports being made available to peers in other provinces.
"No HEPA filters, no N95 masks, no carbon dioxide monitors, no contact tracing, no reporting to parents if their child was sitting next to another student with a positive test that day, (and) no funding for the inevitable demand for additional staff," Hoffman said in a statement late Wednesday.
"The UCP plan is setting schools up to close."
The wildfire spread of Omicron has also been leading to staffing and public service problems in Alberta's two largest cities.
Edmonton reported 200 active COVID-19 cases in its municipal workforce, and almost five per cent of its 1,100 firefighters are off due to the illness.
The city said it is monitoring the situation and may have to make adjustments to ensure the delivery of priority services, such as garbage pickup, snow plowing and emergency care.
In Calgary, police have begun redeploying officers to the front lines as more staff fall ill. Also, swim lessons and other playschool programs have been cancelled this week, and public skating has been closed at almost all city-operated arenas.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2022.
— With files from Fakiha Baig
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press