Edmonton

Alberta government won't release data on how many schools have COVID-19 outbreaks

A COVID-19 outbreak has prompted a west Edmonton elementary school to switch to online classes for two weeks.

Outbreak sends west Edmonton school online for two weeks

Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, says schools are not a major driver of community outbreaks of COVID-19. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

A COVID-19 outbreak has prompted a west Edmonton elementary school to switch to online classes for two weeks.

Edmonton Public Schools says at least 29 people connected with Westglen School have voluntarily reported testing positive for COVID-19 this week.

A school division spokesperson says Westglen is the only division school with such an outbreak.

But the number of schools across Alberta with suspected or confirmed outbreaks of COVID-19 are figures the Alberta government is unwilling to release.

After changing how respiratory illnesses are tracked in Alberta schools, the government said it is considering how to report that information publicly.

A list or map of schools with COVID-19 outbreaks, as the government published online last year, has yet to materialize.

"I know that there is keen interest in school outbreaks, and we're working with the ministry of education to finalize a reporting framework," Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Thursday.

The void has led to advocacy group Support Our Students Alberta to crowdsource their own list of case notices, outbreaks and switches to online learning. It's a job that the government should be doing, communications director Wing Li said.

Alberta's COVID-19 return-to-school plan, which was released in August, ended contact tracing in schools. Alberta Health Services (AHS) and schools are no longer required to notify each other of known COVID-19 cases.

Instead, schools were instructed to call AHS when more than 10 per cent of the population was absent with a respiratory illness.

Parents angered by lack of information

Since the plan was released, Alberta has re-entered a state of public health emergency and hospitals are so overrun, the province has solicited help from the federal government.

Parents and staff now say they're receiving vague notices about outbreaks that don't specify whether or not cases of COVID-19 are present in the school.

Lauren Sergy has two children in an Edmonton Catholic elementary school. She received an outbreak letter soon after classes started. It left her with more questions than answers.

Is it COVID-19? If it isn't COVID-19, what is it? Was it in her kids' classes? Did her children need to get tested? She didn't know.

And so began the parent rumour mill. They talked outside the school and in an online chat group. They agreed to share what they knew about which classes had children absent, and the results of COVID-19 tests, Sergy said.

"Delta's no joke. It spreads like wildfire," she said. The lack of information makes "every decision feel fraught."

Alberta schools aren't obligated to share information about any positive cases of COVID-19 reported to them. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

In Calgary, Janet Pennington-Zoller was similarly baffled by a vague outbreak letter from her five-year-old niece's school. 

"This is going to create misunderstandings on the part of parents, that they may underestimate the risk at school if they receive this letter and return," she said.

Pennington-Zoller, who has two teen boys in high school, says she feels abandoned by the government's end to contact tracing and mandatory case notifications in schools.

There's a big disconnect between the overwhelmed state of Alberta hospitals and the relatively cavalier approach to schools, she said.

On Thursday, Hinshaw said large-scale transmission of COVID-19 in schools is uncommon, and doesn't tend to drive community spread. 

At the same news conference, AHS CEO Dr. Verna Yiu also pointed to a concerning rise in children sick with the virus.

As of Thursday, 6,964 Albertans 19 or younger had an active case of COVID-19 — about a third of active cases in the province.

Hinshaw also said sharing positive case information could be a potential privacy violation.

She said tracking all respiratory outbreaks helps identify spread in places where people have not been tested.

Government officials have not answered questions about when school outbreak information will be made public, or what will be disclosed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also worked at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca

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