Classes at a Drayton Valley elementary-junior high school will start late this year due to "unexpected staff illnesses."
Enough employees of Drayton Christian School are sick that the Wild Rose school division has permission from the government to delay classes until Sept. 7, superintendent Brad Volkman said.
"It's not really fun to start the year this way," he said.
Volkman wouldn't say how many of the employees are ill, but confirmed at least one has reported a positive COVID-19 test.
A note to parents Tuesday didn't specify that anyone was ill with COVID-19 because provincial guidelines no longer require staff and students to inform schools of positive test results, Volkman said.
Some education advocates say this scenario in the town 140 kilometres southwest of Edmonton will soon be playing out in schools across Alberta.
Unlike last school year, when Alberta Health Services and schools were required to exchange COVID-19 case information, expectations are different.
After removing almost all public health measures from the K-12 system, individual school divisions, private and charter schools are developing their own plans and procedures, creating a patchwork of different rules.
Some divisions, like Edmonton Public Schools, have committed to informing students and their families when they find out about a case of COVID-19 at school.
Others, like Rocky Mountain House-based Wild Rose school division, won't be taking any steps beyond the recommendations of Alberta Education and the province's chief medical officer of health.
The school board chose that path after administrators were caught in the middle of disgruntled, divided families — some demanding more protections in schools, and others demanding more freedoms, Volkman said.
"I'm not a medical expert. I'm not a scientific, pandemic expert," Volkman said.
While nearly 70 per cent of eligible Albertans have now received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, government data show 47 per cent of those eligible in the Drayton Valley area are fully vaccinated.
Void of information problematic, critics say
When Education Minister Adriana LaGrange promised a "normal" school year on Aug. 13, Alberta had 4,438 active cases of COVID-19 and 152 people were in hospital with the illness.
On Wednesday, the number of active cases in the province was triple that number, with 465 people hospitalized for COVID.
LaGrange's press secretary did not directly answer a question about whether she believes the school year will still be normal.
"We will continue to follow the expert advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health and will make changes as necessary to ensure a safe and successful school year," Nicole Sparrow said in an email.
Critics of the provincial government's hands-off approach say it will leave employees, students and their families unable to make informed decisions.
Wing Li, communications director for the advocacy group Support Our Students (SOS) Alberta, worries the absence of case notifications will increase the risk to people inside schools and in surrounding communities.
"It's very, 'Sit on the edge of your chair and wait for new information to come,' instead of being able to plan, and be proactive," she said. "Instead of being able to understand the benchmark of when a school would close or re-open."
She thinks the approach will lead to more school interruptions and classes moving between online lessons and in-person learning.
Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling says the Drayton Valley situation was avoidable.
"It's a failure of the government to provide basic needs of schools in the way of data, information, that they need to use to help themselves maintain and protect the safety of staff and students," he said.
The end of most contact tracing in the province, and the planned end on Sept. 27 of public testing and isolation requirements are alarming and should all be reversed, he said.