Grades 7 to 12 students at Calgary public and Catholic schools will shift to online learning on Monday, due to a large increase in COVID-19 cases among students in that age group.
Alberta Education said Wednesday it had approved the Calgary Board of Education and Calgary Catholic School District's requests to shift to at-home learning for at least two weeks starting Monday, April 19. The move includes Airdrie and Cochrane schools operated by the CBE and CCSD.
The province said the decision was based on four criteria:
A chronic substitute teacher shortage.
A significant number of students and staff in quarantine or isolation.
Recent requests from the boards for short-term shifts for a number of their schools.
Substantial COVID-19 cases in the community.
"We are seeing a sharp rise in cases among school-aged Albertans, as well as those in other age groups. While this is an operational decision, I support it and ask that parents and students continue making safe choices to reduce the spread of COVID-19," Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, said in a release.
"Social activities outside of school can easily spread the virus, so please continue following all the health measures in place."
"What's happening in our schools was concerning, in terms of the rising cases we're starting to see," CBE superintendent Christopher Usih said, adding that the board was pleased it was able to work together with the government on the issue. "The variant is highly contagious. I think what we're seeing in our schools is a reflection of the greater community."
Currently, one-in-five schools in Alberta is on alert or has outbreaks, for a total of 2,653 cases at 453 schools — meaning thousands of other students and staff are isolating due to being close contacts.
There are 2,585 active COVID-19 cases among Albertans age 10 to 19. More cases among young people have been reported during this third wave of the pandemic than in previous waves.
More than 52,000 CBE students will be sent home. Since spring break, the board has recorded 159 active cases between kindergarten and Grade 12, resulting in 5,900 students and 300 staff in isolation.
Bryan Szumlas, chief superintendent of the CCSD, said 167 teachers and 2,200 students are isolating.
When asked during a Wednesday teleconference whether schools are safe, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange stressed that the closures are operational decisions made by school boards — not a forced closure by the chief medical officer of health.
"Overall, when we have less than one per cent of students or staff who have tested positive … we know that the measures that we have put in place with our reopening are working," the education minister said.
LaGrange said one of the two Calgary boards recently saw a "severe" shortage of 170 substitute teachers in a single day.
She also said that she has been pushing for education staff to be prioritized for vaccinations, but that decision is ultimately up to the chief medical officer of health.
Wing Li with Support our Students Alberta, a public education advocacy group, said the shift to online learning does not come as a surprise.
"I think this is just acknowledging that schools are crumbling under the pressure right now," she said.
Li said her organization would like to see the government respond more proactively than reactively, by augmenting staff, stepping up testing and prioritizing those in schools for vaccination.
Opposition says schools needed more support
Opposition MLA and education critic Sarah Hoffman said the province hasn't given schools the resources needed to keep classrooms safe, and said it is her understanding that other boards are on the brink of making similar decisions.
"Today, only hours after Jason Kenney told Albertans that less than one per cent of students had been affected by the third wave of COVID-19, both Calgary school boards announced they will close their schools … sending more than 80,000 students home, causing stress and frustration for families," she said in a release.
"My heart goes out to the families who are trying to figure out how to make this work for the third time."
LaGrange said she has not received any other formal requests from school boards to transition to online learning.
The Government of Alberta says the school boards will be in contact with their students, parents, teachers and staff with details regarding the transition.
The closures could be extended past two weeks if necessary, LaGrange said.