'This is not it': ATA remains critical of COVID-19 contact tracing plan for schools

Alberta Health Services says it will take until November to rehire staff needed to do contact tracing of COVID-19 in schools.

In the meantime school staff will be taking over the task of tracing and contacting families of students with confirmed cases.

The Alberta Teachers' Association says the responsibility for contact tracing should not be dumped on the shoulders of school staff.

“We need to be very clear, this is the job of government to give this basic health information, to make these contacts, not principals who are working late evenings through the weekend to get this work done," said ATA president Jason Schilling.

"We need Alberta Health Services to do this work so that principals and administrators who are working within the offices can actually focus on the work that needs to be done, which is teaching our children. We learned this lesson last year, when Alberta Health Services sort of fell apart around November and principals were picking up that contact tracing and doing that work that Alberta Health Services should do.”

Last November, students were forced to do classes online after contact tracing failed and COVID cases spiked in school-aged children. The group Support Our Students (SOS) worries the same scenario is paying out once again.

“When the government doesn't properly resourced schools to mitigate these risks, what we end up with is transitioning to at-home learning, which is not a benefit for students and students get left behind,” said Medeana Moussa executive director of SOS.

“They need more people. They need trained people who can do the contact tracing. But you know, the government has cornered themselves into this situation where there aren't those resources available because they disbanded all of the contact tracers, thinking that this was an endemic, but yet we are still clearly in the middle of a pandemic.”

Alberta Education disputes the ATA calls for more resources, saying schools have had their funding increased during the COVID pandemic.

In an email to CTV Calgary, Nicole Sparrow, press secretary for Education Minister Adrianna LaGrange, said school authorities have had access to more than $1 billion dollars in taxpayer funding for COVID-19.

"This includes a $120 million increase in operating funding for all school authorities across the province, $250 million in accelerated capital maintenance and renewal funding, access to taxpayer-funded board reserves, as well as $130 million in COVID- 19 mitigation funding," she wrote.

"This level of funding is highlighted by the growing taxpayer funded school board reserves across the province, which early indications are showing sit at over $400 million dollars, compared to $363 million at the start of the pandemic. We are confident that all school authorities have been provided the supports they need to provide a safe, world class education to their students.”

Kevin Van Lagan is principal of two schools in east central Albert, one in Consort and the other in Altario.

He says he has already been contacting parents to notify them of COVID cases in the school, but admits he’s unsure if all the cases are being reported to him.

“Because people don't have to inform us now with the new stipulations, today, AHS will inform us eventually," he said.

"So we will know of all positive cases in our school. But the thing that's missing this year is we can't ask people to isolate based on being a close contact, and do what you want with that information. If you genuinely want to stop school spread, this this is not it.

"If you're OK with school spread, then this is how you do it.  I don't know how else to say it. I think all of us, whatever leadership position we have in life, that one of the number one things we have to do is be truthful, be honest, and we have to be open and transparent. That's how I tried to leave the school. And I just feel right now, we're not getting that in this province.”

The Calgary Board of Education told CTV it is still waiting for further direction from the provincial government. In an email to CTV Calgary, communications advisor Megan Geyer said AHS is expected to take the lead on contact notifications in schools within the next several weeks.

"In the meantime, the CBE will continue to provide notification when families self-report an AHS-confirmed case of COVID-19 to their school," she said.

"We are waiting for further information and direction about the process from the Alberta government and will provide updates to our families and staff as soon as we have the details.”

AHS says it currently has more than 1,000 FTEs (full time equivalent) staff involved in contact tracing, and is in the process of hiring more to help manage the increased tracing that will be required for schools. 

On Tuesday, the province reported 464 Alberta schools had two or more cases of COVID. Of those, 366 had between 2 to 4 cases, 85 schools reported five to nine cases and 13 had 10 or more.

When a school has 10 or more cases it is listed as having an official outbreak.