Alberta's current back-to-school plan should be considered an important first step that could be subject to changes if necessary, says the province's chief medical officer of health.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw spent much of her news conference on Thursday talking about the imminent reopening of the province's schools.
"I believe that this is the right first step, going back to school," she said. "I think there is no one perfect way to go back to school. And I am convinced that it is critical to help our children get back into school in person, and to work on balancing the risks of COVID-19 with the risks of all of the other things that our children face — the risks of not being in school, for example."
Once students and teachers return to classrooms it will be critical to closely watch, evaluate and monitor the impact, Hinshaw said.
"It is entirely possible we could have a school that does need to be closed if we spread. That is possible.
"But what I would say is that there are hundreds of schools across the province. We need to take this first step — evaluate, monitor — and if there is something we need to do to adjust, whether it's adjusting in all of those schools, or adjusting in targeted locations, that's something, again, that will be part of our evaluation, monitoring and feedback process."
A single outbreak in a school, or the temporary closure of a single school, would not invalidate the first step the province is taking, Hinshaw said.
Any student, teacher or staff member who develops symptoms at home will not be able to go to school, Hinshaw said.
Everyone at every school will have to complete a screening questionnaire each day. Anyone who develops symptoms at school will need to be immediately isolated and sent home as soon as possible.
Anyone who is sick must stay home and keep away from others until tested. For those who test positive, Alberta Health Services will identify everyone that person had close contact with and outline further isolation measures that might be needed.
Who is considered a 'close contact?'
Only the close contacts of a person who tests positive will be required to isolate.
"If my child has been in a classroom that has had a single confirmed case and they were in close contact with that case, they must stay home for 14 days," Hinshaw said.
While at home, they should be watched for symptoms and not have close contact with other family members for 14 days.
"Generally speaking, anyone who has been within two metres of a case for a cumulative total of more than 15 minutes in a day without adequate protection would be considered a close contact," Hinshaw said.
An outbreak would be declared at a school with two or more confirmed cases in staff or students within a 14-day period or two or more confirmed cases that are linked to the school setting, she said.
No guideline has been set for the number of cases that what would automatically lead to the closure a school.
"I know this may cause concern for parents and teachers who might prefer a single number to watch for," Hinshaw said. "I assure you teams at Alberta Health Services, Alberta Health and Alberta Education will monitor the situation in schools very closely.
"We are not pre-determining specific triggers for school closure. This close monitoring will be used to detect any early signs of concerns that will inform ongoing evaluation of our public health advice and school renter plan."
Not setting specific case-number targets will help ensure that each situation gets a full assessment, Hinshaw said.
"Return to in-school learning is complex and a number of factors will inform any school closure decision. Each situation will be different."
Two more deaths reported Thursday
She gave an example about the possibility of a social event outside of school spreading the virus, so that students who attend a school either catch the illness or are close contacts of those who do.
"A school outbreak may be declared as a precaution during an investigation," she said, "but does not necessarily mean that the school environment is unsafe and should be closed.
"Conversely, in an investigation into a small number of cases at a school, it may happen that a large number of exposures are identified and the closure of that school may be warranted based on that particular situation."
Public health officials, she said, will consider many factors, including absentee rates, school outbreaks, and community transmission rates.
"Both personally and professionally I am committed to a successful return to school," she said.
Alberta reported two more COVID-19 deaths on Thursday and 108 new cases of the respiratory illness.
There were 1,158 active cases in the province, according to the latest update released on Thursday.
The total number of deaths since the beginning of the pandemic in Alberta now stands at 237.
Across the province, 49 people are being treated in hospital for COVID-19, including seven who are in ICU beds.
The province conducted 10,089 tests over the past 24 hours.
The total number of active cases across the province has changed little over the past week.
That active case count on Thursday was 1,146. In the following days the total was:
- Friday, Aug. 21: 1,131 active cases.
- Saturday, Aug. 22: 1,160 active cases.
- Sunday, Aug. 23: 1,176 active cases.
- Monday, Aug. 24: 1,143 active cases.
- Tuesday, Aug. 25: 1,176 active cases.
- Wednesday, Aug. 26, 1,158 active cases.
The regional breakdown of active cases reported on Thursday was:
- Edmonton zone: 589
- Calgary zone: 375
- North zone: 148
- Central zone: 25
- South zone: 18
- Unknown: three