The Calgary Catholic School District has put a stop to all extracurricular activities as of Monday, after almost 6,000 students and teachers went into self-isolation due to having a close contact with someone infected with COVID-19.
In a letter sent to parents on Nov. 13, the district announced that only regularly scheduled credit courses would be happening in its schools, due to a "steady incline" of cases in its geographic area.
The decision would be re-evaluated in a few weeks, the letter said, and in the meantime it would serve as a short-term sacrifice in an attempt to reverse the curve.
According to the district's chief superintendent, Bryan Szumlas, who was interviewed on the Calgary Eyeopener, the situation improved slightly over the weekend. The number of self-isolating staff and students shrank to about 4,000 by Monday morning.
Szumlas was grateful for the decrease — the district had 119 students and 16 staff members who were positive for COVID-19 on Monday — but noted the board has a priority to flatten the curve, and that involves taking measures that limit the potential for exposure and transmission.
"I'm a big fan of extracurriculars, and not only athletics, but also the fine arts and drama and all these things that are going on. So [cutting programs] makes me deeply sad," Szumlas said.
"But, you know, it really wasn't that hard of a decision because safety comes first, and we want to ensure all of our students and staff are safe."
Isolating teachers leaves gap for subs
When COVID-19 impacts a school, the board has to mobilize and respond quickly, Szumlas said.
If a student is identified as a positive case, the schools work with Alberta Health Services (AHS) and trace back what classes they were in, which can send many kids into isolation.
The custodial staff is notified, so that classrooms can be deep cleaned where positive individuals have been.
It is a process that requires the school administration and office staff to respond extremely fast, Szumlas said.
"They're kind of like firefighters, in some ways. When they get that call, they need to respond quickly and put out the fire by notifying all of these parents and students that they need to go into isolation," he said.
Teachers who go into isolation usually continue to teach online and from home, while a substitute teacher fills their place in school, so that students taking different classes with the same teacher won't have their schedules disrupted.
Though the Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) has been able to acquire coverage for about 88 per cent of its absences with substitutes, there is an unfilled gap of about 10 per cent.
"One thing that we've learned dealing with COVID-19 is that things change minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day," Szumlas said.
"[The numbers] have been on a steady, steady climb. And although I'm sharing this morning that they've gone down a tiny bit, that may change by noon today."
School year not sustainable, ATA president says
Other school districts in the Calgary area have expressed that they will soon likely have unfilled gaps, too.
Rocky View Schools said it has generally been able to fill substitute teacher requests. However, with the increasing number of positive cases, it has faced some days — and anticipates more — when it was unable to fill all substitute teacher requests.
The Calgary Board of Education has not yet responded to requests from CBC News for an update on whether it is experiencing a shortage of substitute teachers. But in September, the CBE said it had seen a 20 per cent increase in demand for substitute teachers in the first 15 days of the school year compared with the same period in the previous year.
At the same time, 30 per cent more substitute teachers had been added to the roster.
Jason Schilling, the president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, said he is concerned the school year will not be sustainable for long.
He has heard that as school staffing has thinned, and AHS has become overwhelmed, teachers are taking on cleaning classrooms and principals are stepping in to perform contact tracing themselves.
Both are stepping in to teach classes that are not their own.
"In some jurisdictions such as Edmonton and Calgary, it's extremely difficult to get substitute teachers. And it's been hard on schools because teachers and principals are having to cover for other teachers," Schilling said.
"They lose their prep time because they're not able to get subs into the building."
According to representatives with the CCSD, there are now 24 schools within the district that are in outbreak status.
As for what the district is noticing in terms of which grades the virus is impacting most, Szumlas said there isn't a discernable difference.
Cases of COVID-19 have swept through schools indiscriminantly.
"When [cases] do come into a school, they come like a tidal wave. And we have seen some of our high schools that have been seriously impacted," Szumlas said.
"It's really all over the place. But when a school gets hit, it gets hit hard."
With files from Lucie Edwardson, Janet French and the Calgary Eyeopener.