A growing number of respiratory illness outbreaks in Edmonton-area schools is prompting some parents to say schools should take more infection prevention measures – at least for a couple of weeks.
As of Friday, Edmonton’s two largest school boards reported nearly 17,000 students were absent, including 10 per cent of public school students and 13 per cent of Catholic pupils.
At Edmonton Public Schools, 33 of 213 schools saw more than 15 per cent of their students absent on Friday. According to data posted on the division’s website, three schools were missing more than 25 per cent of students.
Schools in Alberta Health Services’ Edmonton zone, which extends beyond city limits, had recorded 65 schools with a recorded respiratory illness outbreak late last week, according to AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson.
The Calgary zone had 14 schools with outbreaks, the north zone had 12, there were five in the central zone and the south zone had two.
“It’s extremely scary,” said Pam Puri, whose youngest child, age 10, is immunocompromised. “I wish that we could bring masking back into the schools.”
Five years ago, a respiratory infection landed her daughter in the pediatric intensive care unit for about 10 days.
Puri said even a mask mandate in place for a couple of weeks to ride out this viral wave could help protect her daughter and other vulnerable children.
Last month, her daughter missed two weeks of school due to illness. Puri doesn’t want to pull her daughter from the classroom in Edmonton, but she wonders if she should.
It’s unclear what steps Alberta schools or boards could take now Premier Danielle Smith has said she plans to prevent schools from ever bringing back mask mandates.
In a letter to parents Monday, Edmonton Catholic Schools superintendent Robert Martin says moving some classes or schools online is a possibility.
“While maintaining in-person learning is our priority, it may be necessary to shift individual classes or grades to online learning as required due to operational challenges,” the letter says.
Such moves have, in the past, required permission from Alberta’s education minister.
AHS declares an outbreak when more than 10 per cent of the students are absent due to respiratory illness. The letters home to parents do not say whether the cause is COVID-19 or something else.
“An increase in respiratory illnesses is expected over the winter, however we are experiencing more cases than we normally would at this time of year, indicating an early start to the respiratory illness season,” Williamson said in an email.
He said the public health measures in place for much of the past two years would have suppressed the transmission of other colds and influenza. High absentee rates could also be a result of more parents keeping their sick children at home than before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Canada in 2020.
Emergency rooms full of coughing kids
Dr. Shazma Mithani, an emergency physician who works at the Stollery Children’s Hospital and Royal Alexandra Hospital, says waiting rooms are teeming with children with respiratory infections.
Workers don’t test every person who arrives with a cough, cold or fever, she said — only patients who require admission to hospital would be tested for COVID-19 or influenza.
“The sheer volume of it is pretty surprising,” Mithani said. “It’s earlier than expected for this time of year.”
The surge of ER visits could be a result of newer parents concerned about their child’s first nasty infection, and people without family doctors, she said.
Temporarily bringing back mandatory masking in schools would help prevent the spread, and keep kids in class learning, she said.
When school outbreak notices do come home, they leave some parents feeling helpless.
Sherwood Park parent Andrew Friesen has two children in elementary school — and a congested nose and scratchy throat.
His children’s school sent home an outbreak notification letter last week. Moving a Remembrance Day ceremony online was the only new measure the school had planned.
“I don’t know why they’re sending the letter, because it has nothing tactical in the letter,” Friesen said. “I don’t know what to do.”
He’d like to see the government use some of its surplus to invest more into improving ventilation in school buildings.
In an email, an Edmonton Public Schools spokesperson said once more than 10 per cent of a school is absent, health officials work with the school to decide next steps, and declare the start and end of an outbreak.
Both public and Catholic school boards encouraged families to keep their kids home when sick and report absences to the school.
Discussion about this post