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Area teacher, staff absences spike

Catholic division officials are planning to meet Tuesday to discuss whether to close classes or grades
MVT stock COVID-19

INNISFAIL - Chinook’s Edge School Division (CESD) and Red Deer Catholic Region Schools are both being hit by the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in the province, with higher than typical teacher and other staff absence levels being experienced this week, officials said Monday.

Classes resumed in both 11,000-student school divisions on Jan. 14 after a delay in reopening following the Christmas break to allow staff to prepare following the rise of Omicron variant cases province-wide.

Kurt Sacher is the superintendent of CESD. He said Monday that the division is experiencing a teacher absenteeism rate of about 50 per above typical levels.

“We definitely have more absences that normal,” said Sacher. “We have had a five to 10 per cent range (of absence). We are looking at 30 to 50 (absences) across the division on any given day and we would have about half of that on a regular day.”

He attributes most the of the absenteeism to COVID infection.

“A significant percentage are being caused, directly or indirectly, by COVID,” he said.

This week, the division is utilizing substitutes and other staff to make up the gaps, he said

“We are using our full contingent of substitutes and classroom supervisors,” he said. “We are  making good use of our substitute teachers, there’s no question  about that. In some cases where we are unable to access a substitute teachers, then we use a classroom supervisor.”

School divisions are permitted to move some classes or grades to online learning, but must receive permission from Alberta Education to move entire schools to online.

“We haven’t had to make that request so far,” he said.

As of Monday no classes in CESD had been moved online, he said, noting that could, however, be in the cards going forward.

“We have said to our principals that when it becomes unmanageable we need them to be in touch with us,” he said. “We haven’t had to have that conversation, but I do expect within the next week or two we will see some situations where we move a class or a grade or even a school to temporary online learning. I think that is going to come.”

The division is prepared to move entire schools online if needed, he said.

There has not been a spike in student absence since in-person classes resumed on Jan. 14, he said. 

“That’s another area that could fluctuate with fairly little notice,” he said.

Ryan Ledene is the associate superintendent of RDCRS. He said Monday that 103 teachers and educational assistants were on the division’s absence list.

“We are not great,” said Ledene, noting there are about 700 teachers and EAs on the RDCRS division staff list. The current absenteeism levels are higher than typical, he said.

The division is using substitute teachers to help fill the gaps, as well as staff teachers giving up preparation times to help out, he said.

“I don’t think any school has had more than one unfilled teacher absence, and that was after a lot of work on Sunday by our substitute coordinator,” he said. 

Division officials are planning to meet Tuesday to discuss whether to close classes or grades, he said.

Other school divisions, including in Calgary and Edmonton, are also reporting teacher and staff absence spikes this week.

Municipalities maintain status quo

Meanwhile, Mountain View County's operations department has so far not been impacted by the latest surge in COVID-19 cases in the province caused by the Omicron variant, CAO Jeff Holmes said last Wednesday.

Research indicates Omicron is highly transmissible, more so than the Delta variant that fuelled the fourth wave in Alberta. So, even though health experts are seeing evidence Omicron causes milder symptoms, officials remain concerned that a higher rate of transmission might yet translate to increased hospitalizations that could further strain health-care systems.

Although the county has had a number of staff members impacted by COVID since the pandemic began, there has been “no significant spike yet with Omicron,” said Holmes, adding that no staffing issues or changes to staff duties have been required so far in 2022.

“We are following the provincial guidance and in addition have been implementing business continuity strategies by limiting our in-person staff interactions, and restricting movement between various facilities where possible,” he said.

“The office remains open to the public, but we encourage residents to access services remotely when possible.”

The Town of Carstairs operations also have not been impacted by COVID cases so far in 2022, CAO Carl McDonnell said last Wednesday.

Police operations unhampered

In response to multiple media inquiries, the Alberta RCMP issued a statement confirming that policing operations have not been affected by the new variant.

"We have not had to redeploy policing resources to maintain those operations," reads a portion of the statement. 

"As public safety is our top priority, in the event that we experience a higher-than-normal level of absenteeism due to illness, the Alberta RCMP have contingency plans in place to ensure there are no disruptions to our operations."

The RCMP continues to follow public health mandates with respect to any potential exposure to COVID-19, including testing, self-isolation, as well as self-monitoring requirements.