Alberta schools advising thousands of students to isolate based on informal COVID notices

Alberta schools are no longer waiting for public health confirmations to try and stop COVID-19 from spreading.

About a third of cases in Edmonton Public Schools are unconfirmed by health professionals

Alberta schools have been forced to make decisions about students and staff heading into isolation without confirmation of COVID-19 cases from Alberta Health Services. Contact tracers have unmanageable caseloads as the number of positive diagnoses soar in Alberta. (Calgary Catholic School District)

Alberta schools are no longer waiting for public health confirmations to try and stop COVID-19 from spreading.

Several school divisions say principals and support staff are spending hours making phone calls to students and employees, instructing them to isolate, after families report a positive test result for COVID-19.

"Once you hear it, you are compelled to act upon it," Edmonton public school board chair Trisha Estabrooks said on Wednesday. "Early on, principals and staff within our division were essentially forced into becoming contact tracers."

As cases have skyrocketed in Alberta throughout the fall, Alberta's contact tracers became overwhelmed. Although Alberta Health Services (AHS) says it is prioritizing the investigations of K-12 student cases, a growing backlog means tracers are unable to track and record every case linked to a school.

AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said the organization's goal is to double its number of contact tracers to 1,600 full- and part-time workers by the end of 2020.

As of Wednesday, 765 staff and students in Edmonton Public Schools had tested positive for COVID-19, Estabrooks said. About a third of those cases, or 273, have yet to be confirmed by AHS.

That means principals and other school employees have asked nearly 5,400 students and 600 staff to isolate at home for two weeks based on family or staff reports that someone has tested positive.

Edmonton Catholic Schools records confirmation differently, and didn't have comparable data to share.

Last month, the Calgary Board of Education also decided to tell potentially exposed staff and students to isolate as soon as families or workers told the school someone had COVID-19.

Spokesperson Megan Geyer says 110 of the students and staff in quarantine right now have not had test results confirmed by AHS. School leaders asked 4,000 students and 380 employees to isolate as a result of those reports.

In other cases, students have tested positive, quarantined, and returned to school without a peep from AHS.

The Calgary Catholic School Division didn't have a breakdown of how many of its 129 current cases were confirmed by AHS. Chief superintendent Bryan Szumlas said school staff feel an obligation to tell any possible contacts as soon as they have information from any source.

Divisions have no information on schools with spread

Many of these phone calls are happening on weekends and evenings in addition to employees' usual duties.

Bruce Buruma, spokesperson for Red Deer Public Schools, said he offered to set up electronic notifications, but school principals wanted to call families individually. When a case crops up, parents and students have questions that can't be answered by bulk text messages or voicemails, he said.

"We had one case where they were working on a Saturday night until 10 o'clock trying to get in contact with those families," he said. "It's a huge responsibility."

The footprint of a single case can be huge. Buruma said the average number of contacts for a positive case in his division is 51 people.

One case identified Wednesday at Edmonton's Allendale junior high prompted 83 people to isolate.

The absence of current data also means school divisions don't know which of their schools coronavirus has spread from person to person.

Estabrooks said that lack of information leaves administrators "floundering in the dark," and makes it hard to take additional measures.

Steve Buick, spokesperson for Health Minister Tyler Shandro, said in a Thursday email the in-school transmission information is withheld for privacy reasons.

"We are reporting all school data at a provincial level. This demonstrates public transparency and allows parents to understand the spread of the virus, while still protecting patient confidentiality," he wrote.

Estabrooks hopes now that junior high and high school students are learning online, and with the winter holiday break approaching, the number of new diagnoses in schools will soon slow down.

The education minister is aware of the substantial demand the work is placing on school staff, Estabrooks said.

At the legislature, Minister Adriana LaGrange was not made available for an interview Wednesday.

On Thursday, LaGrange's acting press secretary Nicole Sparrow said in an email the minister's office is in regular contact with school boards to deal with these challenges as they arise.

"We understand that learning in a COVID-19 presents unique challenges and we thank our education partners for everything they've done to help ensure safe in-school learning," she wrote.

Williamson says AHS is working closely with school administrators who have lists at the ready for who to contact when a case is detected. The best way to prevent the spread in schools is to lower community transmission, he said.

"We are sorry that [delays are] preventing parents, guardians and staff from having a conversation with AHS to understand where the infection was acquired, and how to prevent onward spread," he said in an email.

As of Wednesday, 17 per cent of Alberta schools had COVID outbreaks with more than two associated cases. Alberta Health said in-school transmission had likely occurred in 253 schools.


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.

With files from Lucie Edwardson


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