Edmonton Public Schools presses province for COVID-19 data

Edmonton's public school board is calling on the province to release data around in-school transmission of COVID-19 as well as figures that backed up decisions such as the return to in-person learning on Monday.

Alberta Health says team of contact tracers is focused on cases in schools

Trisha Estabrooks, chair of the Edmonton Public School Board, says data is important for decision-making and transparency with families. (Caitlin Hanson/CBC)

Edmonton's public school board is calling on the province to release data around in-school transmission of COVID-19 as well as numbers that prompted decisions like the return to in-person learning on Monday.

"If we know where that in-school transmission is happening, perhaps there are ways in which we need to improve our protocol. Perhaps there are additional measures that could be added into the return-to-school-plan drafted by events in public," board chair Trisha Estabrooks told reporters after a meeting Tuesday.

"But if we don't have the data, how can we make the changes?"

She said trustees have been pushing for the release of school transmission data since November when schools saw a sharp increase in cases.

On Monday, Alberta junior and senior high students returned to the classroom. They had been learning from home since late November while elementary-age students remained at school.

Last week Premier Jason Kenney said the decision to resume in-class learning for older students was based on "carefully considering the importance of attending school in person" as well as "the latest evidence of cases dropping in all school-related age groups in December."

"So where's the data to back up that decision?" Estabrooks asked Tuesday. 

"We're just asking for that data from the provincial government so that we can share that with families so that we can understand the rationale behind the decisions." 

Contact tracing support

Estabrooks said the board is also awaiting more details about additional supports for contact tracing in schools which Kenney said last week was in the works.

Contact tracing was done by division staff from September to the holiday break, Estabrooks said.

"That is an incredible burden to put on our staff," she said. "I fully recognize that AHS and the contact tracers are overwhelmed. Our staff stepped in and did that work because they care, because they had to. It's not sustainable, though."

In an emailed statement to CBC Tuesday afternoon, Alberta Health said a growing team of contact tracers is focused on cases in schools.

"We are now able to reach out within 24 hours to all high-priority cases of COVID-19, including all those involving school-aged children," wrote spokesperson Tom McMillan. 

McMillan said AHS alerts a school authority as part of that process and works with schools to determine which students and staff have been exposed and require isolation.

"The assessment that in-school transmission has occurred is done by public health," McMillan added. "Generally speaking, as these individuals are already isolating, this determination does not change the risk of exposure. If additional steps were required, health officials would alert school authorities."

Alberta Health did not directly address the board's request for the release of data.

Estabrooks also expressed concern around the mental health of students and deepening socio-economic inequities during the pandemic. 

"Schools are on the front lines of poverty, schools on the front lines of so many social issues," she said. 

"The nutritional supports that are needed in our schools, the support that our families and our kids need — it is real. And those inequities are certainly growing because of this pandemic and because of how long it is lasting."