Every school in Medicine Hat's public system reporting COVID-19 cases, superintendent says

·3 min read
 (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC - image credit)
(Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC - image credit)

Every school in the Medicine Hat Public School Division is reporting COVID-19 cases, and at least four will likely be notified of outbreaks on Thursday, superintendent Mark Davidson says.

The division comprises 11 elementary schools, three middle schools and three high schools, and classes began just under two weeks ago, on Aug. 30, according to its website.

It was made aware that cases had been reported in all schools over the past week, Davidson said, and it expects that this will continue to trend upward in the community and present in its schools.

"At this point, it looks like we'll be sending home four [outbreak] letters at least today, but likely it'll be more than that by the end of the day," Davidson told CBC News.

'We're left guessing'

Parents have not yet been notified, and attendance data is still being gathered, Davidson said, so the schools on outbreak status have yet to be publicly named.

But because Alberta Health Services (AHS) is no longer monitoring COVID-19 cases in schools, he said the division is now without the tools, support and data it had to help navigate the pandemic last year.

"We're left guessing what the overall absence data means, because we don't have any of the data we had before connected to testing and tracing," Davidson said.

"There's no true tracing or isolation happening in our province at this moment, as it relates to schools."

Schools no longer monitored for COVID-19

Alberta is currently grappling with a gruelling fourth wave of COVID-19 that has postponed surgeries in all zones and prompted physicians to warn the province's health-care system could collapse.

Last month, the province released a five-page back-to-school plan that said AHS won't tell schools when a student or staff member has tested positive for COVID-19.

Students are also no longer required to quarantine if there is a case of COVID-19 at school, even if that case is in their classroom.

  • WATCH | Alberta delays plans to remove COVID-19 measures amid rising cases:

If absenteeism in a school due to illness reaches 10 per cent or greater, it will be reported to AHS, whose officials could then declare an outbreak and recommend additional measures.

Davidson told CBC News that in Medicine Hat that number is increasing at an alarming rate.

"Knowing less, at a time when the numbers are higher than they've ever been in our community, is disconcerting," Davidson said.

"And I think it's disconcerting for many of our families."

Division says it will be vigilant with health measures

For its part, the Medicine Hat Public School Division said it will be vigilant in its response to the cases with health measures that include daily enhanced cleaning, mandatory masking, proper ventilation and physical distancing.

But Davidson said he would like to see a return to the system that used to be in place.

"A return to the kind of very supportive, very robust working relationship that existed between Alberta Health Services and their contact tracers, and so on, would allow us to provide a lot more information," Davidson said.

"And have more information in order to make decisions."

Provincial government responds to concerns

When CBC News told officials about Davidson's concerns and asked for comment, the Alberta government reiterated its policy via email.

Staff, students, parents and guardians "may choose" to notify school administrators of a positive COVID-19 test, although individuals are not required to do so, spokesperson Amanda Krumins said.

However, anyone who receives a positive result must still isolate.

If absenteeism exceeds the 10 per cent threshold due to illness, "AHS will investigate and may declare an outbreak of a respiratory illness at the school," she said.

"Alberta Health will not be reporting on school cases in the same manner as the previous year, as outbreaks in schools could be caused by a number of different respiratory viruses, not just COVID," spokesperson Amanda Krumins said.

"They may recommend additional measures such as masking or cohorting. A reporting framework for respiratory illness outbreaks in schools is expected to be finalized soon."

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