School staffing crunch prompts AHS change to classroom isolation recommendations

Alberta Health Services has relaxed its recommendations to schools about which staff should isolate when a case of COVID-19 shows up in class.

Masked workers who were more than two metres from a person with COVID may not have to stay home

Alberta Health Services is relaxing its advice to schools where a case of COVID-19 is diganosed. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Alberta Health Services has relaxed its recommendations to schools about which staff should isolate when a case of COVID-19 is diagnosed.

As case numbers in Alberta continue to climb, and 18 per cent of the province's schools are on COVID alert or outbreak status, contact tracers will now be assessing school staff exposures on a case-by-case basis, according to AHS.

Previously, contact tracers said anyone who had been in a classroom with an infectious person was considered a close contact and required to quarantine for 14 days, AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said Monday.

"This was resulting in too many teachers/staff being excluded when they may not have actually had close contact with a student case," Williamson said in an email.

Now, teachers or school employees who were within two metres of the infectious person for less than 15 minutes while wearing a mask, and practising good hand hygiene, may not be considered a close contact, he said.

Any students who were in class with an infected person for more than 15 minutes total will still have to quarantine for 14 days, he said.

"AHS is taking measures to do more individualized assessments for teachers to ensure that our educators are not quarantining unnecessarily," he said.

The change was introduced on Friday, he said.

Unrealistic for workers to know exposure times, ATA president says

Numbers change daily, but exposure to COVID has forced hundreds of staff and thousands of students into isolation in attempts to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in schools.

Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling said the new distinctions may be impractical and impossible for teachers to make, given how much people move around inside schools and classrooms.

They may not remember which child or colleague they were in close proximity with for more than 15 minutes.

"It's just not a realistic portrayal of what happens in our schools, and I worry that [with] these kinds of changes and these measures that we might have people who should be quarantining, not," Schilling said.

Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling says substitute teachers are in short supply right now. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

With contact tracers overwhelmed and unable to keep up with all school-related cases, Schilling said he wonders how they will assess staff members on a case-by-case basis.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) represents about 8,000 Alberta school support workers, including educational assistants, administrative assistants, caretakers and maintenance workers.

CUPE Alberta president Rory Gill said the provincial government should have hired extra staff in advance of reopening schools in September, knowing some staff would be exposed or fall ill.

"This [policy change] has the whiff of panic to me," Gill said. "Which is, we're not going to be able to keep these schools open if we abide by the best practice, so we're going to change that practice."

Gill said some workers are burning through their sick time by having to go into isolation more than once.

Schilling said schools continue to struggle to find enough substitute teachers, both in person and online, to replace sick and isolating teachers. In some cases, principals step in to teach or classes are combined.

Asked if the policy change was designed to keep schools running as opposed to keeping schools safe, Williamson said AHS always errs on the side of public health.

Some school divisions say the shifting advice hasn't changed their decisions.

Edmonton Public Schools is asking all teachers and staff  who were exposed to quarantine "out of an abundance of caution," spokesperson Carrie Rosa said.

Similarly, Calgary Catholic Schools is telling everyone in the same classroom with a confirmed COVID-19 case to stay at home.

Kevin Andrea, superintendent of Northern Gateway Public Schools based in Whitecourt, says his division isn't considering changing their practices at this point, either.

Across the province, Grade 7-12 students moved to online learning last week and will continue until they begin their winter break, while younger students are still attending class in person.

All students will have a week of online learning following winter break. In-person learning for all students is scheduled to resume on Jan. 11. 


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.