Growing number of Alberta students home sick as flu, COVID-19 and RSV cases trend upwards

Alberta Health Services says it's seeing an increase in outbreaks of respiratory illnesses at schools.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Alberta Health Services says it's seeing an increase in outbreaks of respiratory illnesses at schools. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

The number of students staying home from school in Calgary continues to grow, as cases of respiratory viruses like influenza, RSV and COVID-19 trend upwards across the city and in nearby communities.

In an emailed statement, the Calgary Board of Education said about 12 per cent — or about 15,000 — students stayed home sick this week, rising from 8.8 per cent last week and about four per cent in October.

The Calgary Catholic School District says they're seeing more than 10 per cent of students absent at about two dozen of their 117 schools.

It's not very surprising to Medeana Moussa, executive director of Support Our Students Alberta, who says she has two of her four children home sick this week.

"Anecdotally, in my community, we're seeing a lot of kids missing school," she said in an interview with the Calgary Eyeopener.

"So the picture is starting to come into focus that maybe this is what they meant by the new normal, and I think it's catching a lot of schools and parents and students off guard."

School boards are required to notify Alberta Health Services when absenteeism due to illness reaches 10 per cent at any particular school.

15 per cent of schools at the CBE and 20 per cent of schools at the CCSD have reached that threshold.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press
Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

It's a similar story across the province, with Edmonton schools being some of the hardest hit. As of Wednesday, about 76 per cent of Edmonton public schools had at least 10 per cent of their students absent, according to data from the school board.

AHS officials say an increase in respiratory illnesses is expected over the winter, but the province is experiencing more cases than it normally does this time of year.

With pediatric emergency departments seeing high volumes, they're urging people to do anything they can to prevent the spread of these illnesses.

Viral infections increasing provincewide

According to the latest wastewater sampling data, collected by the University of Calgary, influenza, RSV and COVID-19 cases have continued rising steadily in the city since late September.

Dr. Margot McLean is president of the Calgary and Area Medical Staff Society and a family doctor. She says she's seen a huge increase in the number of kids coming into her office sick.

"We knew in the summer that there was going to be a big surge in viral infections … especially with the lifting of the restrictions and also the fact that we really didn't have a fall, winter viral season for a couple of years," she said.

"So some of that natural immunity would have waned."

Just like a vaccine, immunity wanes over time, McLean explained, and the same thing happens with natural immunity to seasonal illnesses.

And since several viruses are circulating at once, it's causing some kids to get sick multiple times, according to Dr. Bonnie Islam, a pediatrician in Edmonton.

She's heard from several parents who say their child has been sick for months.

"When you really get a history, it's more likely that they're just getting recurrent viral illnesses. So they get one virus, they might get better for a day or two, pick up another virus and are sick again," she said.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Dr. Shazma Mithani, emergency physician at Royal Alexandra Hospital and Stollery Children's Hospital in Edmonton, says the fact that kids are getting sick doesn't mean their immune systems are weak.

"Our immune systems have been working and fighting over the last two years for lots of different reasons that might not be for the common viruses that we're seeing, but for every other thing that's around us," she said in an interview with Alberta at Noon.

"They're developing and active every day."

Added educational assistants

But while a particularly harsh season for respiratory illnesses continues, she says it's worth considering having kids at hard hit schools wear masks so they don't end up missing class.

Parents like Moussa say they want to see more support, such as added educational assistants, to ensure student learning isn't further impacted after years of pandemic restrictions.

"We just feel a little bit abandoned," she said.

"I think when we talked about the new normal, everyone had a lot of hope that this was going to be a year without the disruptions to learning, to education, to activities, to being able to interact in the classroom like we had before."

In a joint statement, Alberta's Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education said they continue to prioritize the safety and wellbeing of students.

"We encourage Albertans to judge their risk at any point in time and take appropriate precautions, including wearing a mask if they choose … we're transitioning back to longstanding practices to manage respiratory infections in general," the statement reads.

"Education's new mandate letter directs the Minister of Education to explore short-term and long-term strategies to address the need to add a significant number of educational assistants in Alberta schools."

Meantime, health authorities recommend students continue to prioritize hand hygiene, vaccination and staying home when they're sick.

School officials say they're continuing to monitor where classroom adjustments may be required due to absences.

So for now, Moussa says her and her family will continue rolling with the punches.

"Our kids have missed lots of school and we want to get back to normalcy. And unfortunately, it doesn't look like that's happening this fall."