LAKELAND – As of Friday, four schools in both Lakeland Catholic School Division (LCSD) and Northern Lights Public School (NLPS) district have been added to the province’s list of COVID-19 outbreaks.
Following several investigations by Alberta Health Services (AHS), high rates of absenteeism have been confirmed as COVID-19 outbreaks at Bonnyville Centralized High School and Vera M. Welsh Elementary School in Lac La Biche. Two Cold Lake schools - North Star Elementary School and École St. Dominic Elementary School, also have confirmed outbreaks.
NLPS’s Communications Officer Nicole Garner told Lakeland Today, that several other schools within the NLPS district have notified AHS that they have met or exceeded the 10 per cent threshold of absences due to illness. However, the district has either not heard back from AHS or AHS has decided not to declare an outbreak at those schools.
Absenteeism in LCSD
According to Pamela Guilbault, the superintendent with LCSD, as of Sept. 23, AHS was investigating two other schools within the school district. Those schools have not been declared an outbreak, as of yet.
Not able to identify which school are under investigation, Guilbault told Lakeland Today, “What I can say is that we have schools in every community in the Lakeland region who are under investigation.”
The process and means of reporting active COVID cases and labeling outbreak status has changed since the previous school year.
“The process has changed a little bit in that we are now tracking outbreak for respiratory illness at that 10 per cent threshold,” said Guilbault, explaining that last year, every case of Coronavirus was supposed to be reported to the school. Classrooms and close contacts would then be required to isolation.
“So that has changed with Alberta Health, but the partnership and the relationship hasn't changed. We still have a communication partnership whereby (LCSD) is notified from the school, we contact Alberta Health, and then we work in partnership with them to support the school and ensure that our schools are safe.”
Outbreaks are declared only if the data supports it.
Informing parents and guardians
The change in reporting has left some families feeling left in the dark about active COVID cases in their schools, says Guilbault. Increased concerns from parents and staff have prompted LCSD to begin notifying classroom cohorts if a positive test has been confirmed.
On Sept. 19, Board Chair Diane Bauer and Guilbault signed a letter ensuring parents that once aware of a COVID case, they would share the information with parents.
“Our division is committed to transparency to the best of our ability so parents/guardians can make informed decisions and support our schools in reducing the spread of COVID-19... When our schools are made aware of a confirmed case of COVID-19, we will share that information in a notification letter to the individuals in the classrooms that are affected, however, please note that we will likely not be aware of every COVID-19 case in our schools, since self-reporting is voluntary,” stated the letter.
The decision to begin informing parents in similar means as last year required a lot of discussion among school divisions staff, as well as the Lakeland Catholic Schools board of trustees, as it contravenes recommendations by the province to do so.
A notification letter, very similar to the alert letter that was sent home formerly by the school when contact tracing was taking place, will be sent home to the classmates of a student confirmed to have the virus, but will not be sent out to the entire school.
“The more that we can do right now, proactively to mitigate transmission and to mitigate the risk, the longer we can stay in person. And I think that's so important, because the benefits of our children being in school, and having the opportunity to be with their peers and have the relationship with our teachers is so impactful,” said Guilbault.
“The other piece of that is, we were hearing from our parents their concerns and questions and inquiries as to why or when the board would take a step towards notification, because we've had in the past, been taking a strong role in contact tracing and assisting in the contact tracing as a partner with Alberta Health — with the current circumstances, there was a gap,” she added.
Reiterating that disclosure is voluntary, she says that by letting parents know of positive cases, it will allow for a relationship of transparency and communication to continue.
However, student privacy is paramount, Guilbault says, adding that school administrators have to be mindful when a student or a parent calls in to excuse their child for health reasons.
“In education, where we're not physicians and we're not from the health field, so some of those questions we're not allowed to ask, but once we hit the 10 per cent threshold, we fill out our information and submit it to AHS, who then takes over the investigation.”
The situation in schools has been evolving on a daily and weekly basis throughout the pandemic. Between online learning and shifting back to the classroom, and enhanced safety protocols, teachers, custodians, support staff and bus drivers have been asked to adapt repeatedly.
“They continue to have demands placed upon them. They're always putting the needs of their students first and they have smiles on their face,” said Guilbault.
However, the reality is staff are being stretched thin throughout the district and so is the region’s substitute list.
Some schools in the LCSD are relying on non-certified classroom supervisors due a lack of available substitute teachers.
“We acknowledge the stress that comes when the staff that are in the school are having to cover classes, and the administrators or the family outreach workers or librarians are covering classes,” she said, adding, there are times when the sub lists have been depleted.
Added costs downloaded to schools in the province include the cost of providing disposable masks, and hand sanitizer, along with other necessary supplies.
But seeing the resilience and innovation in the classrooms and schools is what keeps staff motivated to find a way to make it work – despite the challenges that continue.
“It's just so humbling,” said Guilbault. “When we think about everything that's happening around us — to stop for a minute, and let that soak in. We just have to count our blessings, because (our staff) truly are heroes for our communities.”