Edmonton Public Schools to seek guidance from chief medical officer of health on rising illness

The Edmonton Public School Board will be reaching out to Alberta’s chief medical officer of health (CMOH) for advice on how to deal with a surge of illness in its schools.

During a board meeting Tuesday morning, trustees voted in favour of writing a letter to the CMOH requesting thresholds to determine when additional health protocols, including mandatory isolation periods and masking, should be put in place for schools.

Read more: Joffe to replace Hinshaw as Alberta’s chief medical officer of health: provincial government

The discussion comes as absenteeism in Edmonton Public Schools exceeded 13 per cent on Nov. 7. In addition, more than 150 of EPSB’s 218  schools have met or exceeded the 10 per cent absentee threshold for contacting Alberta Health Services.

The rates are due to a trifecta of illnesses spreading in the community: the flu, RSV and COVID-19.

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“We need guidance from our chief medical officer of health,” said Trustee Saadiq Sumar. “We’re a bit behind in getting this information from health authorities.

“The numbers are concerning, so we need to act.”

“I am concerned about kids right now too. I think we all are,” board chair Trisha Estabrooks said, adding school boards across Alberta need clarity.

Read more: 14K+ Edmonton students off sick as respiratory illnesses spike in region

Supt. Darrel Robertson said the latest information he has as of Tuesday morning is that 64 schools have been on outbreak status this month, and AHS is working with additional schools to determine if they have reached outbreak status.

“We are seeing more sickness, obviously, and I think that has heightened anxiety from lots of folks,” Robertson said. “What we’re experiencing right now is not good.”

Robertson also pointed out that the school board was dealing with slightly higher absenteeism at this time last year.

Click to play video: 'Dr. Isaac Bogoch answers questions about masks, hospitals and children’s medication'

Dr. Isaac Bogoch answers questions about masks, hospitals and children’s medication

In addition, the board is asking that when schools are on outbreak status that the CMOH and government of Alberta reinstate safety protocols such as masking, and other previously implemented measures like providing COVID-19 test kits to families, to help reduce the spread of illness in schools.

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Robertson said the school board has been recommending masks to families since the beginning of the school year, but added people have the choice to wear one or not.

“We really do require the CMOH’s guidance on what is reasonable for us to mandate in our schools,” Robertson said, adding he is not a medical expert. “This issue (of masking) is so divisive in the community that it makes it, practically speaking, a challenge for schools to enforce in the absence of health orders.

“I do very much rely on the medical experts to be able to provide us the guidance necessary.

“It doesn’t matter how you feel about masking… all of us want to be safe. All of us share that core value of wanting to make sure our families, our friends are happy and healthy.”

During a news conference Monday, Premier Danielle Smith said her government will not mandate masks in schools.

Read more: Smith reiterates no mask mandate — says access to meds, ERs priority for dealing with flu, RSV

Smith said anyone who wants to wear a mask is free to do so, adding it’s a personal choice.

“We’re not going to be mandating masks,” Smith said Monday. “We’ve heard loud and clear from parents that they want a normal school environment for their kids and we’re going to let kids be kids.

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“Health decisions are the purview of the health minister with advice from who he needs to seek advice from. I will make sure — and I’ve been talking with the justice minister about that — that we retain the full authority to be offering that advice at the provincial level.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta premier stands ground with no mask mandates in schools'

Alberta premier stands ground with no mask mandates in schools

Shift to online learning

Questions were also asked Tuesday about how close the board is to shifting schools to online learning. Robertson said the decision to shift to online learning is a “significant decision,” but added EPBS hasn’t yet reached a situation where schools need to make the shift to online learning.

“It is incredibly disruptive to families,” he acknowledged, but added “if we need to transition a school to online temporarily in the middle of an outbreak, I will do that without hesitation.”

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Read more: Smith to not permit any further masking mandates of school children

Robertson said there are no automatic triggers that would shift a school to online learning, but said staffing levels are an important factor. He pointed out that the board has had unfilled supply jobs over the past few months, but said the teacher fill rate is well into the high 90 per cent rate.

“Our commitment is to continue to monitor, do our best… So far we’ve been OK. But I want to reiterate it’s not ideal,” Robertson said.

Click to play video: 'RSV, other respiratory illnesses pressuring Alberta Children’s Hospital staff and wait times'

RSV, other respiratory illnesses pressuring Alberta Children’s Hospital staff and wait times

Other measures taken by school board to prevent illness

Robertson said there are many other measures in place throughout schools that will help keep students, teachers and staff safe. These include cleaning and disinfecting protocols, sick rooms for kids who develop symptoms at school and encouraging hand washing.

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Robertson applauded students and their families for keeping kids at home when they’re sick.

In addition, Robertson said the board has installed, where possible, MERV 13 filtration systems in schools. Where that hasn’t been possible, portable HEPA units have been installed to help improve air quality. He said all educational spaces have some sort of air filtration in place. This work cost the school board around $6 million, Robertson said.

Read more: Edmonton Public Schools to spend $6M on HEPA filters for classrooms

The board also voted in favour of requesting a meeting with the CMOH, minister of health and minister of education to discuss the surge of illness in Edmonton Public Schools.

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