Calgary

Advocates, experts and NDP call for Alberta to reinstate COVID-19 health measures in schools

Experts, parent advocates and the Alberta NDP are calling on the province to bring back COVID-19 health measures in schools across the province, including AHS reporting and monitoring of school cases. 

Parents group would like to see monitoring and reporting of school cases

The Alberta government is facing pressure to reinstate AHS testing and tracing in schools across the province this fall. (Shutterstock/Halfpoint)

As COVID-19 cases spike again in Alberta, experts, parent advocates and the NDP are calling on the province to bring back COVID-19 health measures in schools across the province.

With children under 12 still ineligible for vaccinations, advocates say the province should be doing more, not less, as students enter their third year of classes being impacted by the pandemic.

"The government just continues to ignore schools in their priority list," said Wing Li, spokesperson for Support Our Students (SOS).

"It's actually kind of demoralizing because we're trying to do our best as parents to protect our kids, and seems like we're alone in that.… Why aren't we doing more instead of seeing how we can push them to the brink with delta [variant]?"

Public education advocate Wing Li with the volunteer organization Support Our Students (SOS) says parents feel alone in trying to protect their children from COVID-19 in schools. (Wing Li )

Li says SOS has created a list of 15 things it would like to see the province do to protect Alberta students. The list includes bringing back testing, contact tracing and isolation policies. 

"Parents deserve to know if their kid has been exposed in the classroom," she said, adding the group is also calling for a universal mask mandate in schools. 

University of Calgary infectious disease expert Craig Jenne said the existing mask rules, which allow individual boards to implement a policy if they wish, could be creating a lot of confusion and anxiety. 

"We will have situations where there will be one school board that requires masks and in the same community there may be a school under the jurisdiction of another school board that does not require masks," he said. 

Jenne said while it's important to stress that kids are at a much lower risk of severe disease, they can still get infected.

"We do have to protect them. There is a small number of kids that will get sick with this, but kids also spread it. We really need to hold the line until vaccines are available for the younger Albertans," he said.

"Hopefully, that will be this fall. But in the meantime, they really do not have any other means of protection other than these broad public health measures, such as masking and physical distancing."

NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman says the UCP could use $180 million from its already budgeted $1.25-billion COVID-19 contingency fund to ensure there is a mental health worker in every Alberta school this September. (John Shypitka/CBC)

NDP urges mental health supports

NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman held a press conference on Wednesday and officially called on the government to not only reinstate test, trace and isolate policies in schools, but to also make a big investment in protecting the mental health of Alberta students. 

She said the government should spend some of the $1.25 billion budgeted for pandemic contingency to ensure there is a mental health professional in every school across the province this fall. 

"I am confident that a lot of Albertans who are qualified would be willing to respond to that call," she said. "There are many who are already working in mental health, and families are having to go to them [when they] could instead be in schools and be more available for students and for staff."

Hoffman said hiring more than 2,200 mental health staff would cost roughly $180 million.

Province responds

In an emailed statement the province calls the NDP's plan "last minute", and "unrealistic" given there is one week before schools starts. 

The province says Alberta Education provided an additional $40 million dollars to school authorities to provide a continuum of supports and services to students for the 2020-2021 school year.

"This funding allows for psychological and social-emotional support, supports for loss, access to mental health workers and behavioral consultants, and other wellness supports as needed. Mental health programming is a core component of this grant," said press-secretary Nicole Sparrow.

Sparrow said school boards have the ability and accountability to use this funding to address local needs including hiring mental health professionals in schools.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to education in Alberta. In 2018 she headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alta. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson or reach her by email at lucie.edwardson@cbc.ca

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