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Calgary school boards have ‘daily gaps’ in staff coverage for COVID-19 isolation

Calgary school boards said they don’t have the flexibility to make big changes to school calendars, instead deferring to direction from Alberta’s education minister.

Calgary Board of Education (CBE), Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) and FrancoSud members met with the city’s Community and Protective Services to deliver presentations on their COVID-19 response.

Councillors heard that school boards are stretched to the limit both in finances and teaching staff, but they’re doing what they can to protect students.

The Calgary Board of Education have around 5,000 students and 400 staff in isolation right now, said CBE board chair, Marilyn Dennis.

“Our numbers are certainly going up as the cases go up,” said Dennis.

The CCSD is currently at 135 cases, and roughly 4,000 students and staff that are in isolation.

Earlier in the meeting, Calgary Emergency Management Agency Chief Tom Sampson highlighted the 10 to 19 age group COVID-19 cases.


“The 10-to 19-year-olds are a challenge in a sense that we have about, I think it’s almost 1,300 school aged,” Sampson said.

He recalled a situation where a school-aged person went out, got COVID and then brought it back home to four-or-five family members.

Staffing an issue

CCSD board chair Mary Martin said the overall cash impact from COVID-19 is going to be significant. She said as with many school boards, 80 per cent of costs are people.

She said when you have staff that must isolate, bringing in other teachers to fill means costs go up.

“Costs for guest teachers and guest support staff have been where we’ve never seen them before,” she said.

CBE board chair Dennis said that the public board has increased their substitute roster by 30 per cent.

“…yet we still have daily gaps in our ability to fill those positions,” she said.

In some cases administrative staff have filled in.

She said the federal cash (half of a promised $44.5 million) they’ve received has gone to pay for support staff. One extra custodial staff member has also been added for each of the CBE’s 240 schools.  

The CBE also said they’ve changed their process if a potential case has been identified.

Dennis said that with contact tracing way behind, they’ve begun informing families of a potential positive case prior to confirmation of the case from AHS. She said sometimes families were receiving an update several days after AHS had confirmed the COVID-19 case.

“We just send out a notice that we made this change to better support AHS with their contact tracing,” said Dennis.  

“And also to respond to the feedback that we were getting from staff and families around the delay.”

Change in school calendar?

Mayor Naheed Nenshi asked the boards about flexibility in changing their school schedule. The mayor queried if school boards could put junior high and high school students fully online. Elementary kids would stay in school.

Chief Sampson said he’d recently drove by a city school and saw 95 per cent of students without masks. With growth in spread among that age group, he wondered if it was possible to start the Christmas break early. Perhaps extend it by a week.

Both Martin and Dennis confirmed that those decisions would be left to Alberta’s Minister of Education, Adriana LaGrange. For now, they operate within the three scenarios initially outlined by the province.

“We do need to be ready to switch between one scenario to the next essentially very, very quickly,” said Dennis.

On Tuesday, we asked CBE administration if they’d considered changes to the school calendar to extend Christmas break. The response was similar.

“At this time, we are not considering closing early for Winter Break,” the emailed response read.

“We will continue to follow the guidelines for our current scenario (Scenario 1) set by the government and Alberta Education and adhere to our instructional calendar.”

Boards have autonomy, says the province

Colin Atchison, press secretary to Alberta’s minister of education, said they’re in regular contact with school boards. He said local school authorities set their calendar and have the flexibility to change it to meet local needs.

“So far we are not aware that a school authority is considering extending their winter break,” he wrote in an emailed response.

Atchison noted that the United Nurses Association, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta and Alberta doctors have all advocated for schools to remain open.

“We’ve been working closely with school authorities to make necessary adjustments this school year such as creating a process to temporarily shift to at-home/online learning when needed due to operational and health reasons,” Atchison said.

“Our own Chief Medical Officer of Health has stated that ‘schools are not a main driver of community transmission.’ We will continue to follow the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health and we are ready to make changes when needed based on her advice.”