Edmonton Public Schools calls on province to bring back contact tracing in Alberta classrooms

Edmonton Public Schools is calling on the province to reinstate mandatory isolation for positive COVID-19 cases identified in Alberta schools — and to bring back contact tracing in the classroom.

'We are literally flying blind' says board chair Trisha Estabrooks

A masked student disembarks her bus and heads off to her first day of school in Edmonton. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

Edmonton Public Schools is calling on the province to reinstate mandatory isolation for positive COVID-19 cases identified in Alberta schools — and to bring back contact tracing in the classroom.

"We need the government to act now," board chair Trisha Estabrooks wrote in a letter to the ministers of health and education.

"We implore you to show responsible leadership by immediately reinstating contact tracing, close contact notification and mandatory quarantining for close contacts in schools."

In the letter, made public Tuesday, Estabrooks calls for a meeting with the ministers and demands stricter COVID protocols for schools.

We do not have an accurate picture of COVID in our schools.- Trisha Estabrooks

"We are literally flying blind right now," Estabrooks said in an interview Wednesday.

"We do not have an accurate picture of COVID in our schools." 

The province has discontinued contact tracing in classrooms and stopped notifying schools of positive cases, a departure from the protocol adopted during last school year.

Masks were not mandatory in the classroom until Sept. 15, when the province announced sweeping new public health measures in a bid to clamp down on a devastating fourth wave.

Some schools have been forced to close due to rising infections among students. Many boards are doing their own contact tracing.

Estabrooks said school officials are having to become contact tracers. But they don't have authority to enforce isolation or properly track the spread of infection, she said. 

Parents are growing increasingly concerned and some are choosing to pull their children from the classroom, she said. 

As of Sept. 16, there were 239 reported cases of COVID-19 within Edmonton Public Schools.  By Tuesday afternoon, the division had been made aware of 416 COVID cases.

Estabrooks said the board is notifying families of positive cases but the pressure of tracking cases has siphoned resources away from the classroom.

And, despite their best efforts, contact tracing is likely inaccurate, Estabrooks said.

"We can't leave it up to parents. We know some parents will not report. We know some parents won't get the child tested. And so that is potentially creating classrooms where we have undiagnosed cases of COVID." 

Opposition NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman called on the province Wednesday to release all of its data on school outbreaks.

The lack of transparency about school transmission is unacceptable and has thrown the system into chaos, Hoffman said at a news conference. She noted there are more than 4,950 active cases among school-aged children in Alberta. 

"Another province-wide school closure is a distinct possibility," Hoffman said. 

She said the province needs to issue daily reports on school cases and outbreaks, and set clear thresholds for when schools should move to online learning.

Daily reporting should include an "early warning system" to help parents and school administrators prepare for a possible closure, she said. 

In a letter to the education minister, Edmonton Public School Board Chair Trisha Estabrooks says the lack of contact tracing in schools has created an untenable situation. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

Alberta Health Services is no longer informing school authorities of individual cases. Staff or parents may choose to notify school administrators of a positive test result, but are not required to share that information. 

Classes no longer have to be sent home to isolate, even if the school is aware of a case.

Schools have been asked to inform AHS if 10 per cent of students are absent due to illness. Only then will AHS investigate a possible outbreak.

The Calgary Board of Education and the Alberta School Boards Association have also called on the province to reinstate contact tracing and mandatory isolation.

Alberta Health spokesperson Lisa Glover said in-class contact tracing is no longer needed as "outbreaks in schools could be caused by a number of different respiratory viruses, not just COVID."

A reporting framework for all respiratory illness outbreaks in schools is expected to be finalized soon, Glover said in a statement.

Nicole Sparrow, press secretary to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said the safety of students and teachers remains a top priority. 

The province continues to follow the advice of Alberta's chief medical officer of health and will make changes to school protocols as necessary, Sparrow said in a statement.


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.