All Alberta K-12 students will return to their classrooms next week, except those in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, says the province's education minister.
Students in that region, which includes Fort McMurray, will continue learning online until at least May 31, Adriana LaGrange said at a Wednesday news conference.
"As the chief medical officer of health has stated many times, the safety protocols we have in our schools are effective, they are limiting the risk of widespread in-school transmission," LaGrange said.
Those protocols, including mask requirements, cohorts, symptom screening and seating arrangements, will continue, creating another layer of protection on top of vaccinations for teachers, school staff and students 12 and older, she said.
Reset 'very successful'
"The education system reset we announced earlier in May has been very successful," LaGrange said. "It has helped to alleviate the operational pressures tied to the rise of COVID-19 cases in our communities."
Alberta has seen a sharp decline in cases in school-aged children in recent weeks, from an average 60 new cases a day per 100,000 children in early May to 31 cases, said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health.
Watch | Alberta education minister, Opposition address plan to return students to classrooms:
Data has consistently shown that cases in school-aged children rise and fall in line with the rates of community transmission, she said.
LaGrange said the government has been tracking the number of students and staff who tested positive or were self-isolating before classrooms were shuttered compared to the last two weeks.
Before the closures about 12 per cent of staff were in self-isolation compared to 2.2 per cent now, she said.
There were more than 6,000 positive cases among students and staff before the shutdown, versus just over 1,000 now, she said.
No change for Wood Buffalo
At-home learning for Wood Buffalo schools was extended for another week because case numbers there have not trended down at the same levels as other regions, LaGrange said.
"I am very hopeful that all students, parents and staff can soon benefit from a return to the classroom for the remainder of the school year," she said.
Calgary's public and Catholic schools moved all students in junior and senior high school to online learning on April 19. Edmonton schools followed on April 22. The province then announced on May 4 that all K-12 classrooms across Alberta would close for at least two weeks.
Trisha Estabrooks, chair of the Edmonton public school board, said she couldn't say whether she supports a return to in-class learning without having access to the data Alberta Education used to make the decision.
As long as cases and infections remain high in Edmonton, she said, teachers and students will continue to have to self-isolate because of illness or exposure to someone with COVID-19.
"I really truly hope that we're not entering into another one of these COVID-coaster situations ... where we're having to shift yet again to online learning," Estabrooks said.
Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, said his members want to return to the classroom but are unhappy the province hasn't changed its safety protocols for schools.
"Safety has to be paramount, No. 1, and they feel like the government is not doing everything that they could be doing to ensure that isolation cycle stops," he said.
Alberta reported 908 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday.
Hospitals were treating 685 patients with the illness, including 185 in ICU beds. Another six deaths were reported.
The province has now administered more than 2.27 million vaccine doses. More than half of people in the province age 12 and over are now vaccinated with at least one dose.