ST. PAUL - Alberta Health Services has confirmed respiratory illness outbreaks at two St. Paul schools. The first outbreak was confirmed at Glen Avon School on Sept. 17, and the second was confirmed at Racette Jr. High School on Sept. 21.
During a special meeting held on Sept. 22, St. Paul Education superintendent Glen Brodziak reported that three other schools were also experiencing absenteeism rates of over 10 per cent. Those schools include FG Miller Sr./Jr. High, Elk Point Elementary, and Two Hills School. Investigations are ongoing at the three schools.
Brodziak explained that Glen Avon was the first school to report being over the 10 per cent absenteeism threshold, followed by Racette. Letters have been sent to parents at both schools.
The letters sent to parents both state: "The Medical Officer of Health has declared a respiratory illness outbreak at the school named above. COVID-19 has been confirmed in some of the ill individuals. Outbreak control measures to limit further spread will be implemented in the school."
Board Chair Heather Starosielski asked if any specific measures had been implemented at Glen Avon School, and noted that she's personally heard parents asking, "what happens next?"
Brodziak stated that direction comes from AHS. He noted that last year, AHS would visit schools after an outbreak was confirmed, but he is unsure if AHS has been in any St. Paul Education schools this fall. He added that there is no longer a legal requirement to isolate if a person is a close contact to a confirmed case of COVID-19.
On Wednesday, Brodziak said the division was still waiting for guidance from AHS.
An email sent to parents from Racette School on Wednesday stated: "At this time, we have increased the cleaning of high touch areas. Students are strongly encouraged to practice healthy hand hygiene, masking, and physical distancing at school as per AHS guidelines."
Earlier in his superintendent's report, Brodziak spoke to how the school system is being "stretched" and is "overall stressed."
"We're OK, but the system overall is stressed a bit," said Brodziak.
He pointed to three specific areas that are adding to this stress. The first is a lack of bus drivers in some areas. This is an issue that's being seen across the province, he explained.
The second is staffing availability. The superintendent presented some statistics he had compiled that showed how staff absences have increased over the past four years. In 2018 and 2019, there were under 300 absences recorded each year in the first 10 days of the school year. In 2020, that number increased to 337 absences, and in 2021 that number was 436.
Schools are managing to work through the staff absences by using educational assistants when possible.
The third stressor is managing outbreaks in schools. Brodziak acknowledged that as a region, "We are heading in the wrong direction" as confirmed cases of COVID-19 continue to increase. As of Sept. 21, the St. Paul region was reporting 195 active cases of COVID-19. The neighbouring region of Smoky Lake was reporting 122 active cases.
Regardless of opinion, Brodziak said he felt that everyone could agree the priority is to keep students in school, and not switch to at-home learning.
While he doesn't wake up every day excited to put on a mask, he does it because he knows it helps.
Speaking about vaccinations, Brodziak said he had no "work opinion" on the matter, but the school division is exploring its options regarding staff who are not vaccinated against COVID-19. The direction from AHS states that if a person is not vaccinated, they should say away from the public, and should remain at home.
In an effort to ensure staff and student safety, along with meeting its legal authority and ethical obligations, staff who are not vaccinated may soon be subject to a different set of rules if they are deemed a close contact to a COVID-19 case. Those staff may be required to isolate for 14 days and will have three options available to them.
Those options include accessing leave provisions, taking a personal unpaid leave, or doing rapid testing.
Brodziak said the division is trying to balance everyone's rights, while also working to keep schools open. He noted that when a staff member is away, it has an impact on the whole system.
Starosielski noted that every organization is going through the same discussions right now, and Brodziak stated that some jurisdictions are farther ahead in those discussions. He offered an example from Manitoba where one school division is considering a policy that would require students to be vaccinated in order to take part in extra curricular activities.
"We are evolving and changing daily, almost," said Brodziak.
Locally, the complexities of new public health measures are already being felt. A group of staff and students heading to the mountains for a hiking trip soon are having to call in advance to figure out regulations at restaurants and students are responsible for making arrangements to suit their situation. While schools aren't asking for vaccinations status, businesses definitely can.
"These are the rules," said Brodziak.