Athabasca school division debates extending online learning as COVID-19 variants spread

With the rise in variant cases across Alberta, some experts warn that schools in the province may need to return to an online learning method.

“Although nobody really wants to do it, seriously looking at school opening and considering closures probably starting at the high school level and working our way into the younger ages,” Dr. Noel Gibney, from the department of Critical Care Medicine at the University of Alberta, said.

Three schools in Athabasca have already temporarily switched back to online classes due to an outbreak of COVID-19 within their school division right before the start of spring break.

“It was concerning when we saw how quickly COVID spread in our school and community there was fear and angst that it would be spreading out into the larger community,” Neil O’Shea, Aspen View Public Schools superintendent, said.

READ MORE: Outbreak forces Athabasca high school to return to online learning after spring break 

Some of the cases that were reported include variants of COVID-19 first discovered in the United Kingdom at Edwin Parr Composite High School. There at 97 active cases in total — one in every seven students.

In order to control the spread, O’Shea said the “best move was to move all three schools to online learning,” even though cases weren’t as high at the other two schools.

The plan right now is to have all students return back to class on April 12, but O’Shea said they’re having discussions now to possibly extend the return to in-class learning by another week.

“We believe face-to-face learning is the best option for our kids,” he said. But, insists their first priority is the health and safety of students, staff and the community.

At this point O’Shea doesn’t feel it’s necessary for every school in the province to switch to online learning. He said it should be assessed on a “case-by-case basis.”

“The speed in which it travelled throughout our school was shocking to me,” O’Shea added. “It’s a good lesson to be learned there for schools around the province and within our division that this can happen very quickly, and very unexpectedly.”

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Matt Woodman