St. Joseph High School in Red Deer is one of three Alberta high schools that have switched to online learning due to recent COVID-19 outbreaks.
The outbreak at St. Joseph had more than 10 cases as of Tuesday.Two high schools in Edmonton each had 10 or more cases as well as a school in Airdrie.
In addition, eight schools across the province have between five and nine cases. Those schools have not returned to online learning.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said now is the time to consider sending all Alberta students back online, or at least in communities where COVID rates are high.
“We don’t say this lightly. We believe that students should be in the classroom. But the situation at schools is very alarming,” McGowan said.
“It’s clear that the provincial government has not done nearly enough to keep students and staff safe. Now we’re dealing with the added threat of these new variants of COVID which are much more transmissible, and likely more lethal.”
He said recent outbreaks that have shut down schools are bad enough, but with the appearance of the new variants in Alberta, the continued inaction by Education Minister Adriana LaGrange and the government “are just unconscionable.”
McGowan said the new variants have spread elsewhere in the world, and it was only on Monday that the province even acknowledged that they might be a concern in Alberta.
“But even then, they didn’t announce any plans to address the issue. By the time the new variants take hold in this province and start sweeping through our communities, it will be too late to act.”
He said now is the time to take precautionary measures, like moving to online learning.
“Where is (LaGrange) and why isn’t she taking any new measures to ensure the safety of students and staff?”
Recently the labour federation called for a dramatic increase in funding for schools to hire more staff when other staff must isolate and to shrink class sizes to promote physical distancing. Mandatory investment in proper ventilation in schools was also needed to heed the scientific evidence on aerosol transmission of COVID-19.
McGowan said it’s almost as if the province has not learned anything since the pandemic struck last March.
“If our experience with the first and second wave taught us anything, it’s that this virus can spiral out of control very quickly. The result is that we may be doomed to deal with the third wave caused by these new variants as a result of their refusal to see this pandemic as seriously as it should.”
A statement from Lagrange’s office said the government approved the requests for the shutdowns out of an abundance of caution.
“We consider the operational needs of the school — such as having numerous staff in isolation that makes it hard to continue with a high level of learning for students in school — when making this decision,” wrote Justin Marshall, the minister’s press secretary.
He said that, as of Friday, more than 90 per cent of schools in the province had no known cases of COVID-19 and less than half a per cent of students and staff were confirmed to have been infected.
With files from The Canadian Press