INNISFAIL – There is a serious outbreak at Innisfail High School.
But Alberta Health Services (AHS) is calling it a Respiratory Illness Outbreak. The government agency does say COVID-19 has been confirmed in “some” of the ill individuals but no one, nor any provincial government agency, has offered specifics.
This issue of non-reporting with COVID cases has led to growing concerns across Alberta that the provincial government’s back-to-school plan unveiled in August, which ended contact tracing in schools and the requirement for AHS and schools to notify each other on known COVID cases, is now creating unnecessary worry and alarm with parents over the welfare of their children.
On Sept. 21, AHS sent a letter to Innisfail High School staff and to parents and guardians about the Respiratory Illness Outbreak.
Kurt Sacher, the superintendent of schools for Chinook’s Edge School Division, said his school board did not have any information on the extent of the outbreak.
“We don’t receive it in the way we would have in the past when Alberta Health was monitoring close contacts. They would make us aware and we would have absolute confirmation and now we don’t have that information,” said Sacher, adding the school board is expected to contact AHS when absenteeism at a school is more than 10 per cent because of illness. “It is a new reality that we are making our way through.”
The Albertan contacted the communications department at AHS and was told Alberta Health would provide case and outbreak numbers.
Tom McMillan, assistant director of communications for Alberta Health, said on Sept. 24 he did not have "exact figures" for the Respiratory Illness Outbreak at Innisfail High School.
"A reporting framework for respiratory illness outbreaks in schools is expected to be finalized soon," said McMillan. "We will share more details once the framework is completed."
Meanwhile. the issue of COVID transparency with COVID cases at schools is of great concern to Support Our Students Alberta (SOSA), a non-partisan, non-profit public education advocacy group (www.supportourstudents.ca) that has been tracking COVID cases since September, 2020.
The agency’s website has a detailed list 2021-22 School Outbreak List, and Innisfail High School is now on it.
Wing Li, the Edmonton-based communications director for SOSA, said the letter sent by AHS to Innisfail students and parents is essentially a form letter, a template for all five provincial health zones.
“It’s a generic letter. The only thing that changes is the outbreak number that you quote when they go for testing and the name of the school,” she said, adding her organization received the Innisfail letter from a parent. “The parent probably knows as much as the next person because the letter says nothing.
“This means in an escalating situation we don’t have an accurate read on the gravity of what is actually happening and that translates into families not having essential tools to assess their own risk by sending their children to school,” said Li, who holds an MSc and a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Lethbridge and is increasingly talking to media about the lack of provincial government transparency with COVID cases at schools.
“We hear people say, ‘well, I am notified if there is lice in the classroom so why don’t we have information about a highly contagious disease that has brought the world to a pandemic, a situation that is serious?'"
“We just want transparency. That’s a basic thing,” she said, noting her agency’s ongoing commitment for better government reporting to Albertans is paramount. “We don’t know the direct impact. We just know that we were asked by the community to fill this void. All we can say at this point is that the demand is resounding to have this data, and it falls on volunteers, and it shouldn’t."
“This government takes a lot to blink,” she added. “Our hope continuing on is that we need a comprehensive picture, and unfortunately with the death of the first paediatric case last week you would hope that they’d have some humanity and prevent further deaths and serious outcomes by mitigating and informing parents.”
In the meantime, with the AHS letter clearly saying some of the sick at the Innisfail High School are with those who have been infected with COVID-19, is there anything the Chinook’s Edge School Board can do to soothe the concerns of parents who may be increasingly concerned there is a serious public health risk at the campus, home for three other schools?
“I think it’s just that people need to be aware that when the COVID numbers are high in the community there will be times when COVID will unfortunately be present in a school, so we need to behave as if it is there anyway. That is why we’re adhering to all of the guidelines,” said Sacher, noting there’s ample prevention resources available for parents, and that masking has recently been mandated for all students between grades 4 to 12.
“There is always an element of risk in our community and at our schools and we need to behave as if the risk is there.”
On a positive note, Sacher added that on Sept. 22, one day after receiving notification of the Respiratory Illness Outbreak, there was an AHS vaccination clinic at the high school’s neighbouring Innisfail Middle School. Up to 40 students and staff members got their shots.