Education Minister Adriana LaGrange says 1.7 million reusable masks have been ordered at a cost of $4.2 million.” (Advocate file photo).

Two Edmonton high schools move online after high COVID-19 caseloads confirmed

EDMONTON — Two Edmonton high schools have moved classes online after a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases among students and staff.

There have been 20 confirmed cases at M.E. LaZerte School in northeastern Edmonton, where nearly 1,300 students been attending in-person classes. Three hundred students and 43 staff members there have been asked to quarantine.

At J. Percy Page High School in the city’s southeast, 715 students who had been receiving classroom instruction are now learning at home. Thirteen cases have been confirmed at that school, resulting in 366 students and 17 staff members being asked to quarantine.

Edmonton Public Schools Supt. Darrel Robertson says he asked the Alberta government for permission Sunday for two-week “circuit-breaker” shutdowns. The Education Ministry approved the request within hours and parents were informed by letter shortly after, he said Monday.

Robertson said Alberta Health has told the school division that most of the new cases reported in the past week came from outside, but there has been some in-school transmission.

“I have full confidence that the contact tracers are going to … try to provide more of an explanation as to why these particular two areas in the city experienced that number of cases in a short period of time,” Robertson said.

He said he didn’t know whether the surge was a result of kids mingling outside school.

“None of us have faced this kind of disruption to our lives before,” he said. “Our kids are doing a phenomenal job adhering to the COVID protocols and there may be some exceptions to that, as there would be in the adult community as well.”

Several cases emerged last week, but additional ones reported over the weekend compelled the school division to act, Robertson said. It also made sense to make the switch to home learning before a new school quarter began and students broke off into new cohorts.

A large backlog in contact tracing had previously been an issue. But Robertson said since the holidays, schools in his division have received notifications of positive cases within a day or sometimes hours.

Monday was being treated as a “transition day” for students and staff to adjust, he said, and equipment loans and technological support are available.

“There is a lot of anxiety around a pandemic, as everyone can appreciate, and we’re doing our best to take care of each other.”

The Alberta Federation of Labour said the school shutdowns should be a “wake-up call” for the province’s United Conservative government.

The labour group is calling for mandatory paid sick leave and isolation pay, “dramatically” increased funding for schools and investments in proper ventilation in schools and workplaces.

It also wants proactive inspections of workplaces and a strategy to “crush and contain” COVID-19 as other jurisdictions, such as New Zealand and Australia, have done.

An email from Education Minister Adriana 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.

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