Teachers in K-12 schools are working triple duty to keep kids learning and safe from COVID spread as absentee rates remain high in local school districts.
And as cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant continue to rise, infections among children are now four times what they were during the catastrophic fourth wave of COVID last fall.
According to Alberta Health data, COVID in children under 19 years of age surpassed 800 cases per day early this week, four times as high as the 200 per day peak in September.
Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said teachers are feeling the pressure of those rising cases, trying to keep students healthy while teaching their classes, and often the classes of absent colleagues.
“Teachers are doing three jobs at once. They are doubling up classes, sometimes teaching 50 students in one classroom, which is not ideal with Omicron and how transmissible it is,” Schilling said.
“They’re also checking in with students who are absent and learning from home, making sure they are on the right track.
“And they’re doing everything they can to keep health protocols in place, keeping classrooms clean, making sure kids are wearing masks and that they’re distancing.
“They’re balancing so much right now, with no supports from government.”
On Tuesday, the Calgary Board of Education reported 1,273 staff absent, including 817 teachers and 456 support staff.
As well, 14 CBE schools now have at least one classroom that has been forced to transition to learning online from home due to staffing shortages.
Meanwhile, many schools are still waiting on the arrival of rapid tests and medical-grade masks, which are not N95s, promised to arrive from the UCP government at the end of last week.
Not even 50 per cent of rapid tests have arrived, CBE officials confirmed.
“The remaining shipment of medical-grade masks from the province is expected to be distributed to CBE schools later this week,” said CBE spokeswoman Megan Geyer.
“We are still waiting for more than half of the shipment of testing kits.”
CBE has also purchased iN95 masks for school-based staff, receiving about 11,000 this week, with an additional 71,000 masks expected in the near future.
Officials at the Calgary Catholic School District reported 116 teachers on public health leave, or 316 total teacher absences, which could include sick days, medical appointments, compassionate or teacher leave.
Tuesday, CCSD had 25 classes transitioned to online learning, using a 25 per cent classroom absenteeism rate to initiate that.
But the CBE is not using a similar benchmark, saying that transitions to online learning are considered on a case-by-case basis.
“In making decisions, it is important that we consider the system-wide context, as well as the circumstances of individual schools and grade configurations,” Geyer said.
“Transitions to online learning are based on operational capacity pressures due to staff absences and our ability to provide consistent coverage.”
But with few specifics on how individual schools are handling absences, many parents are worried their kids are being placed into larger classrooms taught by just one teacher, or even just one educational assistant.
“When my kids come home and tell me how many absences there are, my stress level is definitely rising,” said Medeana Moussa, a spokeswoman for the Support Our Students advocacy group who has kids in the public system.
“I would like to have a better sense of what is happening and who is backfilling these gaps. I know administrators are taking over at our school, but I have also heard from other parents that ed assistants are teaching classrooms.”
Moussa said she is also concerned about the lack of clarity around when a classroom will transition to online, that there is no threshold, and case numbers are a mystery in schools with no positive notifications.
On Tuesday, chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw reported 70,223 active cases of COVID in the province with 1,089 people in hospital and 104 in ICU.
Among those are pediatric hospitalizations, which have spiked significantly over the past four days, that Alberta Health did not provide data updates on its website due to “technical difficulties.”
On Tuesday, Alberta Health reported 641 children under 19 in hospital with COVID, up from last Thursday’s total of 596.
On Monday, the province also confirmed the COVID-related death of a child, aged between five and nine years.