Ministers reject physicians' concerns about school re-entry plan

Alberta’s education and health ministers are rejecting concerns from physicians that the province’s re-entry plan for schools doesn’t do enough to protect students and teachers from COVID-19. 

Minister says government plan was developed in consultation with chief medical officer of health

Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange has been defending criticisms of her school relaunch plan since it was released last week. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Alberta's education and health ministers are rejecting concerns from physicians that the province's re-entry plan for schools doesn't do enough to protect students and teachers from COVID-19. 

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said her plan, announced last week, is "robust" and was developed in consultation with Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

"I'm very confident in the plan," she said. 

Four physicians who were guests at an NDP news conference earlier on Tuesday weren't as assured by the province's plan, which doesn't limit the number of children in a classroom or mandate the use of masks. 

Dr. Tehseen Ladha, a pediatrician with a masters degree in public health, said it is impossible to maintain physical distancing within a classroom without capping class size. 

Ladha said current plans make the assumption that children don't get sick from COVID-19 like adults do. She says new research from South Korea shows children of the age of nine can spread the virus the same as adults. 

"The UCP current plan is essentially a large-scale human experiment without safety nets to see what will happen to kids, their teachers and their respective families if we reopen schools base on our current re-entry plan," Ladha said. 

Dr. Kim Kelly, who worked as a school health specialist prior to her current position in harm reduction, was similarly critical. She worried about lack of space and a sufficient number of sinks and bathrooms to keep students safe. 

"The UCP plan, in my opinion, is the government putting its head in the sand and not understanding the real risks," she said. 

When asked about the physicians' concerns, Health Minister Tyler Shandro said this kind of disagreement was not unusual. 

"It's not uncommon for medical professionals even within a specialty to have differences of opinion," Shandro said. 

He said Hinshaw plans to keep watching the evidence and will adjust her recommendations as required.

Whether that will provide any comfort to parents, teachers and students remains an open question. On Tuesday, Calgary Catholic School District announced a summer school student tested posted positive for COVID-19.

The CCSD summer school was cited by LaGrange as evidence a return to classrooms would work. But classes were held under Scenario 2 conditions where classes are capped at 15 students. 

'Cuckoo' fantasy 

Last week, the NDP proposed an alternative plan with a 15-student cap.  The party is proposing the government hold classes in alternative sites like recreation centres and empty schools in order to properly space students out. The plan is estimated to cost $1 billion. 

The UCP dismissed the opposition's proposal as unrealistic, with Premier Jason Kenney calling it a "cloud-cuckoo-land fantasy" during Monday's question period. 

Still parents, teachers and students are expressing concerns via calls and emails to MLAs and social media.

Calgary pediatrician Dr. Natalie Forbes said during the NDP news conference that parents have booked appointments with her just to discuss their worries about their children's return to school.

In one case, Forbes wrote a letter on behalf of a student with asthma to alert his school about his need for social distancing and proper hygiene. 

Another patient's mother expressed concern because she is immuno-compromised.

"I can't disagree that it's a risk for her child to go to school and potentially bring that home," Forbes said. "She's a single parent and that puts her in a very difficult situation."



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