Edmonton Public Schools calls on province to bring back contact tracing in Alberta classrooms

·3 min read
A masked student disembarks her bus and heads off to her first day of school in Edmonton. (Dave Bajer/CBC - image credit)
A masked student disembarks her bus and heads off to her first day of school in Edmonton. (Dave Bajer/CBC - image credit)

Edmonton Public Schools is calling on the province to reinstate mandatory isolation for positive COVID-19 cases identified in Alberta schools — and to bring back contact tracing in the classroom.

"We need the government to act now," board chair Trisha Estabrooks wrote in a letter to the ministers of health and education.

"We implore you to show responsible leadership by immediately reinstating contact tracing, close contact notification and mandatory quarantining for close contacts in schools."

In the letter, made public Tuesday, Estabrooks calls for a meeting with the ministers and demands stricter protocols for the pandemic school year.

We do not have an accurate picture of COVID in our schools. - Trisha Estabrooks

"We are literally flying blind right now," Estabrooks said in an interview Wednesday.

"We do not have an accurate picture of COVID in our schools."

The province discontinued contact tracing in classrooms and stopped notifying schools of positive cases, a departure from the protocol adopted during last school year.

Masks were not mandatory in the classroom until Sept. 15, when the province announced sweeping new public health measures in a bid to clamp down on a devastating fourth wave.

Some schools have been forced to close due to rising infections among students. Many boards are doing their own contact tracing.

Estabrooks said that as cases continue to surge, school officials are having to become contact tracers. But they don't have authority to enforce isolation or properly track the spread of infection, she said.

Students under age 12 are not eligible for the vaccine.

Estabrooks said parents are growing increasingly concerned and are choosing to pull their children from the classroom.

As of Sept. 16 —10 days into the school year — there were 239 reported cases of COVID-19 within Edmonton Public Schools.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the division had been made aware of 416 COVID cases.

Estabrooks said the board is notifying families of positive cases but the pressure of tracking these cases has siphoned resources away from the classroom.

And, despite their best efforts, their contact tracing is likely inaccurate, creating the risk of further outbreaks in the classroom, Estabrooks said.

"We can't leave it up to parents. We know some parents will not report. We know some parents won't get the child tested. And so that is potentially creating classrooms where we have undiagnosed cases of COVID.

"Have we not learned anything from being in a COVID situation? Have we not learned anything about sending kids into our classrooms during a global pandemic? If I sound frustrated, it's because I am."

Dave Bajer/CBC
Dave Bajer/CBC

Schools across the province are grappling with marked changes in the way the province handles COVID in the classroom.

Alberta Health Services is no longer informing school authorities of individual cases. Staff or parents may choose to notify school administrators of a positive test result, but are not required to share that information.

Classes no longer have to be sent home to isolate, even if the school is aware of a case.

Schools have been asked to inform AHS if 10 per cent of students are absent due to illness. Only then will AHS investigate a possible outbreak.

The Calgary Board of Education and the Alberta School Boards Association have also formally called on the province to reinstate contact tracing and mandatory isolation.

In a statement to CBC News, Alberta Health spokesperson Lisa Glover said in-classroom contact tracing is no longer needed as "outbreaks in schools could be caused by a number of different respiratory viruses, not just COVID."

A reporting framework for all respiratory illness outbreaks in schools is expected to be finalized soon, Glover said.

Nicole Sparrow, press secretary to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said the safety of students and teachers remains a top priority.

The province continues to follow the advice of Alberta's chief medical officer of health and will make changes to school protocols as necessary, Sparrow said in a statement.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting