Alberta students board a school bus, near Cremona, Alta., Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. The president of the Alberta Teachers' Association says he is cautiously optimistic after seeing COVID-19 cases go down in classrooms a little over a week after the province lifted a mask mandate in schools. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Fewer COVID-19 cases in schools: Alberta teachers union ‘cautiously optimistic’

Fewer COVID-19 cases in schools: Alberta teachers union ‘cautiously optimistic’

EDMONTON — The president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association says he is cautiously optimistic after seeing COVID-19 cases go down in classrooms a little more than a week after the province lifted a mask mandate in schools.

But Jason Schilling says a major lesson he learned about the pandemic is that some waves have worsened after a brief downward trend, so the union will continue paying close attention to case numbers.

“What we see in the community in terms of spread and COVID numbers is often echoed within our schools as well, so cases going down is a good thing,” Schilling said in a phone interview Wednesday.

“What I heard from a lot of teachers (is) … a lot of students were still wearing their masks in school. They were still following the same protocols. Teachers were working really hard to make sure that the choices that students were making were respected and their classes were safe, caring places for them.”

Starting Feb. 14, students in Alberta were no longer required to wear face coverings. Children 12 and under no longer need to wear masks in any setting.

Teachers will have the option of not wearing a mask if a provincewide mandate lifts as planned on Tuesday. That’s when remaining school requirements, such as students having to remain with their cohort group, are also to end.

As students returned to schools last week with the option to ditch masks, some parents, kids and teachers said they were concerned that lack of protection would exacerbate the number of infections in classrooms.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said on Twitter on Tuesday that none of the more than 2,500 schools in Alberta was shifted to temporary at-home learning to address operational challenges brought on by the virus.

“As recently as January 28, that number was 29 schools, so the numbers have been steadily trending downward,” said Katherine Stavropoulos, who is LaGrange’s press secretary.

“School authorities continue to have the flexibility to shift a class or an individual grade to short-term, at-home learning. However, school authorities must obtain approval from the provincial government if they are seeking to move an entire school.”

Edmonton Public Schools, on its website, is also reporting a downward trend in the number of kids who are sick with COVID-19. Last week, less than one per cent of the more than 105,000 students enrolled in the division were absent due to the infection.

The Calgary Board of Education reported a slight increase in cases. About three per cent of children were absent due to COVID-19 the day the mask mandate was lifted. On Monday, the absentee rate was at four per cent.

Alberta reported 791 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday. The positivity rate sat at 27 per cent, “which is nearly a 14 per cent drop since last week,” Health Minister Jason Copping said at a news conference.

To continue the downward trend, Copping announced Alberta Health Services will offer vaccines for children between five and 11 on a walk-in basis in early March.

The health provider said in a news release that it will assess the demand for walk-in appointments for kids on March 16 to determine if it needs to expand its services.

“The single most effective way to protect ourselves and each other is by getting vaccinated and this includes ensuring Albertans continue to get their booster shots,” Copping said.

“We need to close the gap … as we prepare to further ease measures.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2022.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press

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