The Alberta government is bringing back contact tracing in schools and plans to provide rapid testing kits to help parents in outbreak areas test their children twice a week at home.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange announced Tuesday that schools will start notifying close contacts of students who were infectious at school.
The shift comes with the province in the midst of a deadly fourth wave of COVID-19 that has overwhelmed the province's hospitals and ICUs and forced the government to accept medical help from the Canadian Armed Forces, the Red Cross and other provinces.
Alberta Health Services had stopped notifying schools of positive test results so districts were relying on parents to tell them if their children fall ill.
Some school boards and other advocacy groups have been calling for contact tracing and other measures since the beginning of the school year. Now, some critics say Tuesday's announcement comes too late.
At a news conference Tuesday, LaGrange defended her government's COVID-19 approach for schools.
"We started the year with very strong protocols," she said, listing the masking and cohorting measures already in place.
"We will continue to monitor very, very closely, and if additional measures are required we will absolutely do that."
Public list of schools on outbreak
On Wednesday, Alberta Health will start publicly listing schools that have more than two students who were infectious while in school.
Alerts will be issued if a school has two to four cases, or five to nine cases. If a school has 10 or more cases, an outbreak will be declared. This is a shift from the province's previous requirement that 10 per cent of a school population be infected with COVID-19 before an outbreak would be declared.
Alberta Health Services will investigate all outbreaks at schools within a two-week period.
Beginning Oct. 12, parents will be informed if their child may have been exposed to COVID-19 at school. Initially, school authorities will handle contact tracing and notification using data supplied by Alberta Health Services.
Alberta Health Services will take over contact tracing in schools by the middle of November. At that point, an online map will be available where parents will be able to view alerts and outbreaks at schools.
Students in Kindergarten to Grade 6 will move to online learning from home if there are three or more infectious cases in a class in a five-day period. Families of students in a class that gets sent home will be asked to avoid public places, monitor for symptoms, and get tested if a child starts showing symptoms. The families will not be required to otherwise quarantine.
Rapid tests for Kindergarten to Grade 6
Officials also announced a targeted rapid testing program for Kindergarten to Grade 6 schools as vaccines aren't yet available to students in that age group.
The province will start handing out tests in late October at schools that are on outbreak status. Tests will be distributed to staff and parents. The rapid tests are voluntary, and are to be done at home as a screening tool for students who are asymptomatic.
The province is also encouraging school districts to enact mandatory vaccination policies for staff.
LaGrange says the province can't enact a similar policy for students because they cannot be denied access to schools.
Return of contact tracing welcomed
Calgary Board of Education Superintendent Christopher Usih said he welcomes news that contact tracing will return.
"We've had situations where families have expressed concerns around the self-notification option that was in place because it was very difficult to establish the veracity of that information and even to know whether or not we're getting full compliance around that piece," Usih said.
He was also pleased to see the change in classifying an outbreak at 10 students rather than 10 per cent of students.
Earlier on Tuesday, Edmonton Public School Board trustees passed a motion calling on the province to reinstate case notification, contact tracing and isolation of close contacts in schools, to enact provincial ventilation standards and for Alberta Education to purchase specialized air filters for classrooms that meet standards set by experts.
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Trustees also called for a "firebreak" — a two-week minimum closure of all Alberta schools in an effort to prevent further spread of COVID-19. Districts are not able to close schools without the permission of Alberta Education.
"On the one hand I'm glad they're putting these measures in place, on the other hand I fear that it is too late," said Edmonton Public School Board trustee Shelagh Dunn on Tuesday evening.
Dunn said Tuesday that none of the trustees want to see schools closed and that they know the disruption in learning wouldn't be good for students. But she said it feels like the time for last resort measures have arrived.
"However, there's been such a lack of provincial leadership in this situation, and the case numbers are so great and the impact on our hospitals is frightening to watch."
Dunn's own son got COVID-19 during an outbreak that saw nearly a quarter of the students in his school test positive.
"It really threw our community into chaos. There was no contact tracing by AHS, there was no notification to the school about cases other than those that parents were calling in themselves. And it did happen really quickly," she said.
Reacting to LaGrange's announcement, NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman called the measures "too little, too late," and said the government has dumped the burden of contact tracing onto school staff.
But Hoffman stopped short of calling for moving classes online, and said she thinks schools should be the last place to be shut down. She said that's why she has called on the province to ask the Canadian Armed Forces for personnel to help with contact tracing.
"To say 'we're going to take another six weeks to set up a contact tracing system' I don't think is good enough. I think if they do see the urgency here, if the UCP sees the urgency, they need to call in the help."