Classes set to resume at Alberta's K-12 schools as Omicron cases climb

Alberta’s government is weighing whether schools should reopen in person next week as omicron case counts surge in the province.

Government to make a decision about in-person classes later this week

Edmonton parent Jane Purvis (left) and her sons Archie Shandro, 11 (centre), and William Shandro, 13 (right) are debating whether the kids should return to classes in person next week. Cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 are soaring in Alberta. Archie is in Grade 5 at Westglen school and William is in Grade 8 at Westminster Junior High. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

Alberta's government is weighing whether schools should reopen in person next week as Omicron case counts surge in the province.

"It's clearly our strong preference to maintain as much as possible in classroom instruction," Premier Jason Kenney said at a news conference on Tuesday. "We think it's very important for the mental and emotional well-being of children."

But with more than an estimated 7,000 new COVID-19 cases confirmed during the past five days, and many more times that number likely unaccounted for, Kenney said the government must consider whether schools will have enough healthy, non-isolating staff to operate.

He said the government is looking at what other provinces are doing, and will make a decision near the end of the week.

Most schools in Calgary and Edmonton are slated to resume either Monday or Tuesday following a two-week holiday break.

Several Alberta post-secondary institutions have already announced classes will move online for most of January.

Although the government maintains schools are not a major driver of infections in communities, outbreaks paralyzed some schools in the fall. Edmonton's Westglen elementary school recorded at least 64 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in September and October, according to Edmonton Public Schools.

Jane Purvis's younger son, Archie, is in Grade 5 at Westglen, and his older brother, William, in Grade 8 at Westminster Junior High.

As she looks at the limited information the province is releasing on COVID-19 during the holidays, Purvis isn't sure what to do.

"In a best-case scenario, I want them at school with their friends," she said in an interview. "If there's ways that we can make the schools safer, that is always my first option."

Steps that would reassure her could include improving the ventilation systems, or paying for air filters in classrooms where ventilation systems can't be easily upgraded.

She'd like to see the government fund higher quality masks for students and staff, as top health officials recommend better masks to guard against the more infectious Omicron variant.

And with the chief medical officer of health now recommending lab tests only for symptomatic people who work in high-risk environments such as health care, Purvis said she lacks confidence that the government has a clear picture of the pandemic's effects.

She said the situation is evolving so quickly, the family won't likely decide until Sunday whether the kids will pack their backpacks for Monday morning.

Wing Li is an Edmonton parent and communications director for the advocacy group Support Our Students (SOS) Alberta. She says the government can still take meaningful proactive measures to stop the spread of the omicron variant in schools. (Submitted by Wing Li)

It's a scenario Wing Li says is "frustrating and exhausting" for anyone connected with K-12 schools. The Edmonton spokesperson for Support Our Students Alberta and parent of two says, as in previous waves, a lack of proactive measures is likely to lead to clusters of cases in schools, staff shortages, kids infecting older relatives, and classes forced online.

Li said schools must mandate masks for younger students, provide higher-quality masks, and improve ventilation.

"It's a big punishment to children, when we say, 'Close the schools,' but we didn't do much to keep them safe in schools to begin with," she said.

Government officials did not answer questions Monday or Tuesday about whether the province is planning any further investments to improve infection control in schools.

Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling also fears a repeating cycle of school cases forcing classes online.

Schilling repeated the ATA's call for the province to hire more teachers to reduce class sizes and space students out. Vaccines should be offered at school-based clinics to increase coverage rates, he said.

Schilling said the measures government took in the fourth wave weren't enough to halt school outbreaks. Omicron is even more contagious, he said.


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.