COVID spikes in schools as doctors warn of sixth wave

‘The legacy of this pandemic, and all the disruptions, continues to be played out in student learning, and learning loss’

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COVID cases and absence rates are rising again in Calgary schools, as doctors warn of a sixth wave and government officials make no moves to increase protections.

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Absence rates at the Calgary Board of Education reached 8.4 per cent among K-3 students Wednesday, averaging nearly 6.3 per cent for K-12 students overall. As well, up to 1,106 school-based staff were away due to illness, with only 847 positions filled by substitutes and casual employees.

Two months ago, just before the UCP government lifted mask mandates in schools, student absences hovered around four per cent with about 600 staff away.

The CBE does not track COVID cases reported by parents to schools, saying they are not official since the province no longer reports for schools.

But parents say the lack of information is raising fears over increased illness while staff shortages continue to cause disruptions for individual learning.

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“There is still so much scrambling, so much disruption in the system. It’s the only thing that has been consistent throughout this pandemic — the constant disruptions,” said Medeana Moussa, spokeswoman for the Support Our Students advocacy group.

Moussa said schools are still seeing principals and other administrators, or specialty music or gym teachers, replacing regular teachers. Classrooms are also being combined to address staff shortages, while kids watch movies and videos.

As well, Moussa added, specialty teachers hired temporarily through a $45-million grant to address pandemic learning loss are now also being used as substitutes for regular teachers.

“The legacy of this pandemic, and all the disruptions, continues to be played out in student learning and learning loss.”

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CBE officials would only say they are taking direction from Alberta Education, encouraging students to stay home when sick, and confirmed they will transition to online learning if necessary.

“We must all work together to maintain healthy school environments for students and staff. This includes completing the daily health checklist and staying home if you are sick,” said Christopher Usih, CBE chief superintendent.

“We have seen an increase in absences in the past couple of weeks. It may still be necessary to transition individual classes or grades to at-home learning as required due to operational challenges.”

CBE confirmed Wednesday that eight classes from five different schools are now engaged in online learning.

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But Alberta Education confirmed restrictions will not change in schools because justification for mandatory public health measures from the start has been to protect capacity in the health system.

“That capacity is not at risk at this time. On the other hand, public health measures have a real cost — especially for our kids,” said spokeswoman Erin Allin.

Meanwhile, officials with the Calgary Catholic School District, which does track COVID cases reported by families, say they, too, are seeing a spike.

“Like many schools across the province and country, CCSD is currently seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases. CCSD is committed to continuing to keep our students and staff safe,” said spokeswoman Felicia Zuniga, adding they are encouraging families to follow a daily health checklist, and warned classrooms will transition to online when necessary.

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CCSD is reporting 299 student infections in the past 10 days, with 65 schools reporting an active status. One school, Our Lady of Lourdes, has transitioned to online learning. Officials would not say how many staff were absent.

A month ago, CCSD reported an average of 257 student infections over the previous 10 days, with 71 schools in active status.

Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam warned this week that much of the country has entered a sixth wave with a new Omicron variant surging.

“Let me just emphasize all across Canada, doesn’t matter where you are, it’s very likely that the Omicron variant, the BA.2 sub-lineage, is spreading quite widely in your community,” Tam said.

“So, doesn’t matter where you are in Canada right now, I would advise getting that booster shot, masking and improving ventilation.”

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Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping agreed Wednesday that cases are rising, but the province is more equipped to handle a surge with vaccines and new drugs.

“We’re seeing more virus circulating in Alberta as in other provinces. This is not surprising given the transmissibility of BA.2 and the increase in contacts as people resume their normal routines,” Copping said.

“But we do not expect the kind of impact we saw in the initial Omicron wave in December and January.”

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