How southern Alberta schools are responding to COVID-19

In a letter sent home to CBE families earlier this week, the school board acknowledged an increasing concern in its school communities. It's a similar situation elsewhere in the region.

All school boards say they are taking direction from officials at Alberta Health Services

How is your school division preparing for COVID-19? (CBC)

As concerns over COVID-19 increase around the globe and here in Alberta, school districts are making plans for how to respond to the pandemic and what to do in the case of school or system-wide closures. 

During a CBC livestream Wednesday of the province's daily update on the novel coronavirus, many viewers had questions about what school boards are doing, and what families should expect. CBC Calgary set out to get the answers for you.

During her update held Thursday, Alberta's chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said the province is considering closing schools, but have yet to make a decision.

"We know that the [routines] of families would be significantly disrupted if we were to close schools, and so at this time we believe that the most important measure is [to limit] gatherings, especially with international travellers coming in and large gatherings of more than 250 people," she said.

"But with schools, we need to take a little more time to consider the impact that those school closures would have and weigh that out against what potential public health benefits we might achieve."

Hinshaw said there is some debate about the effectiveness of closing schools. 

"If children are in a setting where there's many children together — such as an after-school care program or something like that — we need to know if closing the school will actually just shift those groups of children to another location or if we can find ways for them to be accommodated in ways that wouldn't continue to have that risk of children close together," she said. 

"Some of the factors that we need to determine are whether or not there are measures that can be taken within schools to reduce risk without closing schools, or if for a period of time school closure might be the appropriate way to limit spread."

The Centres for Disease Control in the United States says children don't appear to be at increased risk from the virus compared to other ages.

"Limited reports of children with COVID-19 in China have described cold-like symptoms, such as fever, runny nose and cough. Gastrointestinal symptoms (vomiting and diarrhea) have been reported in at least one child with COVID-19," reads the website. 

"These limited reports suggest that children with confirmed COVID-19 have generally presented with mild symptoms, and though severe complications (acute respiratory distress syndrome, septic shock) have been reported, they appear to be uncommon."

Calgary Board of Education

In a letter sent home to CBE families earlier this week, the school board acknowledged an increasing concern in its school communities. 

"We take our direction from Alberta Health Services (AHS), and will continue to respond and act in-line with their recommendations," reads the letter. "The CBE is working directly with AHS and the Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA). We have also set up an internal task force to address necessary planning and issues."

According to the board, families in some of its schools have been asked by AHS to self-isolate. 

"If you or your child is at risk due to close contact with COVID-19, AHS will notify you," said the CBE.

"Family members not flagged for testing by AHS and who are not showing symptoms may continue their regular routines such as going to work and attending school."

The CBE said one of the things they have already done is increased cleaning and disinfecting protocols on high touch points at schools including door knobs, light switches and desk tops.

"CBE schools will remind students of good handwashing techniques, and new posters will be provided to reinforce this," said the school board.

"The CBE has a supply contract for all necessary soap, sanitizer and cleaning/disinfecting supplies. This supply is reliable and readily available."

The school board told families that if their child is sick, the child should not be sent to school, and their absence should be reported to their school. 

"If you or your child have symptoms such as fever, cough and difficulty breathing, have travelled outside Canada or have been exposed to someone who has COVID-19, stay home and call Health Link 811," the CBE said. 

"In certain circumstances, AHS is directing Albertans to self-isolate and is increasing testing for COVID-19. Self-isolation is a precautionary measure and does not mean that the individual is infected with COVID-19."

And, some CBE schools have also sent letters home cancelling parent-teacher interviews and athletic events. 

"In light of the current situation with COVID-19, Queen Elizabeth High School is following direction provided by the Calgary Board of Education and we will be cancelling upcoming events and athletic games up to spring break," said a note to parents Thursday afternoon from Queen Elizabeth High School.

"After spring break, the situation will be reassessed. At this time, clubs and practices will continue to run."

Calgary Catholic School District

The Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) said they have put together a pandemic response committee, which is meeting daily.

"We have deployed that team in response to everything that's going on in the community, our schools, North America and worldwide," said Tania Van Brunt, director of communications and community relations for the board. 

"We are taking a close look at all our practices, all the new information that's coming forward as it becomes available to us, and determining what our next steps will be."

Van Brunt said CCSD is looking at ways they could best deliver education if there was a closure, including offering online learning.

The board is also ensuring they're aware of any staff travel planned over spring break in April, and looking at how they might gather information should it be required they track student travel as well. 

"And with 116 schools and more than 58,000 students, you can imagine that's a fairly daunting task" she said. 

Foothills School Division

Foothills School Division held a meeting Thursday morning reviewing pandemic response plans. 

"Every major business or organization has been conducting research into COVID-19 and reviewing pandemic response plans to ensure they are kept current. Foothills School Division is no different," said district spokesperson Candace Denison in an email to CBC News.

"We remain committed to reviewing our plan, staying updated on the most recent information available from public health authorities, and communicating with our staff and families."

Denison said privacy legislation prevents them from asking families to disclose their travel plans, but she said they're aware some families have concerns regarding scheduled travel during spring break. 

"We are sharing Alberta Health Services recommendations with parents and staff and encouraging them to adhere to these recommendations," she said.

"We are emphasizing the importance of staying home when sick, contacting Health Link at 811, and following the advice of medical professionals."

In addition to taking any AHS directives or recommendations, Van Brunt said CCSD has also asked all school caretakers to be diligent with high touch areas, "to ensure we limit the spread of any kind of contagious illness."

Rocky View School District

In a letter sent to families on Wednesday, the school division said that while the risk remains low, they are taking action. 

"As always, the health and safety of all stakeholders continues to be a top priority," reads the letter from Murray Besenski, associate superintendent of schools. 

Besenski said that as Rocky View receives updates from AHS, the Alberta government, the Canadian government and the World Health Organization (WHO), it will respond and "act in accordance with those recommendations."

"We understand the community needs confidence in the actions we are taking to protect our school communities," he said. 

Those actions include the decision to cancel all overnight student filed trips outside of Alberta, effective immediately. 

"While we support the educational value of national and international field trips, at the forefront of the decision is the safety of students, staff and members of our community," he wrote. "We acknowledge the challenges that may arise as a result of this decision and are working with schools to minimize the impact on our families,"

Rocky View said that if a student arrives at school with flu symptoms, or develops symptoms during the school day, they will be escorted to the school infirmary, where they can be monitored until they are picked up. 

"A sick child will not be permitted to take the bus home. A parent, or other person noted on the child's emergency contact information, will be required to pick the child up. Please ensure your school has the most up-to-date contact information for your family."

The school division said it has also take the precaution of turning off all of its water fountains and made them inaccessible. 

"Students should bring a personal water bottle to school. Please review with your child to not share food, water and personal items with others," reads the letter. 

In addition, Rocky View is asking families to educate themselves on things like proper handwashing practices, coughing and sneezing into your sleeve, and encouraging students and staff to stay home if they're sick. 

The school division said they will also be tracking absenteeism, and the reasons for absences. 

Red Deer Public School District

In an interview with CBC News on Thursday, district spokesman Bruce Buruma said the school board has three international trips planned over spring break in April to France, the Dominican Republic and Peru. 

"We've not made any final decisions on those because there's a few checkpoints that we need to do in terms of moving forward with those, but cancellations or rescheduling are definitely a possibility with that," he said.

He said the board is checking with tour providers in terms of what other ways they're able to accommodate them, and taking a look at refunds, insurance and paybacks as possibilities. 

Beyond that, Buruma said, the school district is taking direction from AHS.

"We are taking initial precautions around what those potential outcomes could be," he said. "I think we can all anticipate that school closures may be part of the reality, so we're just starting to anticipate what that particularly could mean."

If a school, or all schools are closed, Buruma said they are working on a plan for how to deliver materiel to students, and will be working with other school jurisdictions in the province to see if there is an opportunity to collaborate. 

Buruma said "comprehensive" plans that were made during the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 are also very helpful. 

"We're just dusting off those resources where we did have anticipation for all of those eventual outcomes and trying to to manage that the best way we can with recognizing what the impact could be on our staff," he said. 

Buruma said if staff or students do travel overseas during spring break, the board is pointing them to AHS for directions. 

University of Calgary

The University of Calgary has recalled all foreign students and halted all travel.

"We are requiring that all of our students who are in countries in Europe make arrangements to leave the country they are in as soon as possible and to contact Risk Management & Insurance ( UCalgary fully supports this early departure, and will reimburse for additional financial costs incurred," the university said in a release late Thursday afternoon.

"For academic staff, we strongly encourage they come home (if they are in a position to do so)."

The university has also suspended its outbound study abroad program until August. 31.

Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools

Kathleen Finnigan, interim superintendent of schools, says in the event of a closure, the teachers are preparing to teach their students using Google Classroom. 

"It's a tool that we are already familiar with and we have implemented in our school division," she said. "It will continue to be used as that tool to support students who may be self-isolated or quarantined or if we close down schools."

Finnigan said the school board is also meeting with its maintenance team Thursday afternoon to go over plans. 

"We're posting proper handwashing etiquette and we're teaching students about it," she said, adding that they will also discuss the idea of shutting down school water fountains as a precaution. 

Holy Spirit Catholic School Division

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Holy Spirit Catholic School Division said it continues to monitor the situation and is working with Alberta Health Services' officials "to ensure the health of our schools."

"There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Lethbridge to date," said Anisha Gatner, communications co-ordinator with the district. "Discussions are underway regarding how to proceed if our school are required to close."


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