The Edmonton Public School Board is calling the government to implement a “firebreak,” which would see schools across the province shift to online learning for a minimum of two weeks.
The motion was brought forward to public school trustees and passed during a special board meeting Tuesday morning.
The motion will now see the EPSB ask the government of Alberta to implement a firebreak, which includes the shutdown of all Alberta schools and non-essential services to control the community spread of COVID-19. The board is asking for the shutdown of in-person learning for at least two weeks, until community transmission “has substantially reduced.”
The school division does not have the jurisdiction to shift schools to online learning, that move must be approved by the province. Global News has reached out to the Education Ministry for comment and will update this story if a response if received. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange is also set to speak at a 3:30 p.m. news conference Tuesday regarding COVID-19.
Supt. Darrel Robertson said so far this school year, one Edmonton public school has shifted to online learning for a two-week period due to COVID-19 cases. In addition, two classes within the division have taken a two-week break from in-person learning.
“We’re now at that stage where there isn’t a choice,” said trustee Bridget Stirling, who moved the motion.
“It’s not a step that we would take lightly.”
The board has asked that in-person learning continue for students who need specialized supports. The board is also requesting a staged return that prioritizes schools as an essential service that will reopen before non-essential services such as entertainment and hospitality industries.
The request comes amid a surge in COVID-19 cases within Edmonton Public Schools. Robertson said as of 4:30 p.m. Monday, the division had identified 699 self-reported cases of COVID-19 across the division’s 175 schools.
Approximately 67 per cent of those cases are in students from Kindergarten to Grade 6, 11 per cent are in Grade 7-9 students and 13 per cent are in Grade 10-12 students, Robertson explained.
As of Monday, there were 55 self-report cases of COVID-19 in staff members within the division. Robertson reiterated the school division is not receiving official data from Alberta Health Services and that cases are being self-reported by staff and families.
Most of the trustees voiced frustration that they have been forced to make these types of decisions, saying the provincial government should be taking the lead on these decisions.
“I have a lot of hesitancy about voting for this motion. I have agonized over this. I feel like we’re letting families and kids down,” board chair Trisha Estabrooks said.
“I know none of us take this lightly… No one wants to be here. We also don’t want this crisis to continue and fester.
“If the provincial government had prioritized in-person learning from the get-go, I don’t think we’d be needing to have this very tough discussion today.”
Trustee Nathan Ip shared the frustration, calling out the provincial government for a “failure of leadership.”
“School boards have been left in the dark for weeks and months,” Ip said. “We do not have the option of doing nothing. As a board we cannot just sit here idly and do nothing.
“I am deeply, deeply disappointed at our provincial partners, our provincial government for allowing us to be in this position.”
Trustee Sherry Adams was the only trustee to vote against the motion to call on the province to implement a firebreak.
Robertson did not have a day-to-day comparison to what cases looked like at this time last year, but said the division had just shy of 2,000 total cases in schools last year.
The EPSB also passed other motions Tuesday, one of which is to once again call on the province to reintroduce contact tracing and quarantine measures within schools.
Earlier this year, Alberta ended contact tracing in schools and lifted a mandatory requirement for students to isolate after close contact with a positive case.
An advocacy group called Support Our Students, which is tracking COVID-19 cases in Alberta schools, says almost 10 per cent of Alberta elementary and secondary schools have active outbreaks.
Last month, the EPSB wrote a letter to the province asking for the reintroduction of COVID-19 mitigation measures like the notification of positive cases and mandatory quarantine for close contacts of cases.
stabrooks said the board has since met with the education minister to discuss the board’s needs.
“To date though, there’s been no change and our request has not been met, unfortunately,” Estabrooks said.
The Opposition is also calling for a return of contact tracing in schools, suggesting the province use the military to help restart the practice. Eight critical care nurses with the Canadian Armed Forces were to begin work Monday in Alberta hospitals that have been overwhelmed with COVID-19.
NDP critic for Education Sarah Hoffman said many military members who don’t have clinical backgrounds can be trained to contact trace instead.
“The majority of school-aged children cannot be vaccinated,” said Hoffman.
Other recommendations passed by the board Tuesday include requesting the provincial government set ventilation standards in schools, and that the government make at-home AHS-approved rapid COVID-19 testing available to families at no cost.
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