Edmonton Catholic Schools, rely on rapid tests, predict staffing crunch as students head back to class

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Edmonton Catholic Schools will begin the second half of the school year relying on parents and the results of rapid tests to decide whether to move classes online while waiting for the province to provide updated instructions amid the spread of the Omicron variant.

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Alberta students are scheduled to return to in-person classes Jan. 10. Prior to the current wave of the pandemic, classes were moved online if they had three confirmed positive cases over the span of five days. Despite the spread of Omicron and a decision by the province to limit those who can access PCR tests, that metric has not been updated.

At a press conference Friday, Edmonton Catholic’s chief superintendent Robert Martin said schools will continue using the three-case benchmark while they wait for Alberta Education to provide an update. Positive rapid tests will count as positive cases, Martin said.

“We want to err on the side of abundant caution and prudence in terms of mitigating the spread as best as we can. We feel that’s a very reasonable dynamic that we have with our parents…. We need to make sure that we have that cooperation and collaboration moving forward,” Martin said.

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“We realize that next week is going to bring many challenges, but it’s going to take our families, our staff working together in the best interest of using whatever information we have to make those determinations.”

Earlier in the week, the Edmonton Public School Board published an open letter to the government which, among other requests, asked for better data and metrics for deciding when to move classes online.

In a statement, Dylan Topal, press secretary for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, did not answer a question about when schools would be given updated metrics for moving classes online.

“We are committed to working with school authorities to keep our students learning safely in school as much as possible and we will continue to listen to the expert advice of the chief medical office of health,” he said.

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The government has promised 8.6 million rapid at-home tests and 16.5 million medical-grade masks to students and teachers but all schools are not expected to get their shipments until the end of next week after classes have already started.

Catholic schools have not received any of their supplies yet, Martin said Friday.

Like similar concerns raised by Edmonton Public earlier in the week, Edmonton Catholic board chairwoman Sandra Palazzo said there are concerns about staffing amid the spread of the Omicron variant.

“While we simply don’t know what next week will hold, we do expect that with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, that there are going to be an impact on staffing levels across our division,” she said.

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According to the division, between 140 and 200 teachers are currently absent. Edmonton Catholic has about 5,000 staff total including about 2,000 teachers.

The division will be installing MERV 13 rated air filters at all 96 schools and several other sites over the next few weeks, Martin said. The move is based on the recommendation of the northern and southern Alberta chapters of American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

“The advantage is to make our sites as safe as possible for every student and staff member in our buildings,” he said.

ajoannou@postmedia.com

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