As students in Alberta prepare to return to classrooms for in-person learning Monday, the province's teachers' union is calling for smaller class sizes and more support for principals, who have been acting as contact tracers in schools.

Alberta students have been taking classes online all week, including junior high and high school students, who have been learning from home since the end of November.

"My concern about a return to class on Monday is we are basically putting students and teachers back in the same situation they left from and the government has made no efforts to ensure the return to school plan has been improved, amplified or strengthened," said Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling.

In an open letter posted online Friday, Alberta Education Minister Adriana Lagrange told parents that the province has a comprehensive plan to continue student learning throughout the pandemic. 

"The decision to resume in-class learning on January 11 was reaffirmed after careful consideration of the importance of attending school in-person, as well as the latest evidence of COVID-19 cases dropping in all school-age groups in December," the letter said in part.

Yesterday the Premier reaffirmed that as planned, students will return to in-person learning on Monday, January 11th.

Please read my open letter to parents, as students prepare to return to their classrooms. #abed #ableg pic.twitter.com/eKjVYvvtAI

— Adriana LaGrange (@AdrianaLaGrange) January 8, 2021  

"Learning must continue, even during a pandemic," LaGrange's letter went on to say.

Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said Thursday the province's data shows in-school transmission of COVID-19 was not the main driver for cases in schools.

"This is based on the evidence we saw in the fall," said Hinshaw. "In fact analysis of all of our cases in school-aged children indicated that only about six per cent of all of these cases were determined to have been acquired at school."

In a written statement, Alberta Health told CTV News Edmonton that that six per cent was based on approximately 13,800 cases identified in school-aged children in the province.

"This is only one of the many pieces of evidence being used to help inform decisions," said Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan.

"For example, an earlier analysis of cases among five to 19-year-olds from September through Nov. 1 found that 75 per cent of school-aged cases where the location of disease acquisition could be identified were acquired COVID-19 in a household or private dwelling," he said. 

McMillan went on to say that the province has added to its team of contact tracers since the return to school in the fall.

Contact tracers follow up with parent and guardians of students, as well as teachers and school staff, after a COVID-19 case has been confirmed.

"AHS’ contact tracing teams are now contacting and closing an average of 600 cases per day, compared to an average of 370 cases per day in early December."

The Alberta Health spokesperson added that the province's team of contact tracers continues to grow.

"AHS now has more than 1,250 contact tracers in Alberta and more than 1,000 formal offers to new contact tracers have been accepted, most of whom are in training or have started working. They continue to hire and train hundreds of additional contact tracers that will bring the number of staff conducting contact tracing to 1,600 in the next few weeks. They expect to have more than 2,000 staff by early to mid-February." 

According to McMillan the number of cases of unknown exposure to COVID-19 is declining, with 54 per cent of current active cases.

"This is a decrease from more than 85% in mid-December."

EDMONTON SCHOOL BOARDS' REACTION

Board chair for Edmonton Public Schools, Trisha Estabrooks, told CTV News Edmonton that she would like to see the data that supports the province's decision to return students to classrooms.

"We still don’t have a clear sense of where we’re seeing in-school transmission, so that’s just one example of additional information that we would like to be receiving from the province." 

Estabrooks said she's concerned about the high number of COVID-19 cases being reported daily.

"We’ve been through this before, we know that if we have cases in our community we are going to see cases when kids return to school on January 11th. That is the reality," she said.

In a written statement to CTV News Edmonton, the board chair for Edmonton Catholic Schools, Sandra Palazzo, said the health and safety of their students and staff is their top priority.

"Edmonton Catholic Schools remains committed to our comprehensive COVID-19 management protocols as we serve and support our students in their learning," the statement said. "We are forever grateful to our staff for their dedication, resiliency and professionalism as they ensure continuity of quality Catholic Education throughout this pandemic.  Our Division has resumed contact tracing to ensure the swiftest possible notification of exposure and thus minimize viral spread."

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Amanda Anderson