BOW VALLEY – Canadian Rockies Public Schools is warning it may be forced to close schools and move to at-home learning given a high number of staff impacted by COVID-19.
Chris MacPhee, superintendent of Canadian Rockies Public Schools (CRPS), said the school division is monitoring the impact of the Omicron variant on a daily basis and hopes recent, additional measures can be relaxed soon.
“We are currently very concerned that approximately 20 per cent of our staff are already out with illness,” he said in an emailed letter that went out to families on Monday (Jan. 10).
“Given the COVID-19 rates in the valley, we remain deeply concerned with the increasing numbers and our capacity to keep classes and schools open for your children, due to staffing shortages.”
MacPhee said CRPS is aware of several other school divisions that are already experiencing difficulties with substitute staff shortages due to illness.
“Please be aware that if CRPS continues to have increased staff who are required to isolate, schools may be required to close for in-person learning and all activities may be required to cease due to operational challenges,” he said.
“Should this unfortunate situation occur, students will be supported through at-home learning.”
New guidance from Alberta Education recommends against off-site activities at this time, such as field trips for group physical activity, performance activities, and recreational activities that are part of the curriculum.
The department has also recommended that school authorities limit extracurricular sports tournaments and inter-school games at this time to reduce potential exposures to COVID-19.
CRPS has also implemented strengthened protocols developed by all school administrators, senior administration, the local Alberta Teachers Association and the CRPS board of trustees.
“Our entire team and the board are focused on keeping CRPS facilities open for education purposes,” wrote MacPhee.
As COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly throughout the Bow Valley with record high case counts, the Town of Canmore has about nine per cent of its staff off work due to COVID-19 – 27 out of a total of 307 employees.
The Town of Banff has about 28 current cases. The municipality has roughly 300 full and part-time employees in the busy summer months, dropping to about 265 the rest of the year.
Both municipalities cancelled public events over the Christmas holidays. The Town of Canmore cancelled its staff Christmas party, but the Town of Banff has faced criticism for moving ahead with its Christmas party at the Banff Park Lodge on Dec. 16.
Banff Town Manager Kelly Gibson said cases were low in the lead-up to the mid-December Christmas party and at the time a decision was made to host the event.
He said all staff were double vaccinated under the municipality’s mandatory vaccination policy and all public health orders were strictly followed during the event, which was attended by 67 staff and 37 guests.
Gibson said staff had to show proof of vaccination at the door, had to wear masks the entire time except when eating and drinking while seated and were encouraged to take a rapid test in the lead-up to the party.
“There was no wandering around with drinks. This was a textbook Christmas party as far as following the rules,” he said.
“I feel comfortable that we did follow provincial guidelines to the T … we were never outside of provincial legislation at any point on this event.”
The Town of Banff cancelled its Christmas party the previous year, but Gibson said this year was different because all staff were fully vaccinated.
“We knew we had strong protection from the virus within the workforce,” he said.
“Just as we were leading up to the Christmas party we had very few or no cases for a period of time … we thought it was safe within the provincial restrictions to go ahead and do this with a relatively smaller number of employees attending.”
Gibson said no employee who attended the party tested positive with COVID-19 until 10 days after the event.
“Omicron definitely has a quick turnaround period, but there weren’t any cases immediately following it and by day 10 it was fully in the community,” he said.
“If we look at the 10 to 14 days after the event, we had a total of seven employees who attended the Christmas party who tested positive for COVID-19. That’s relatively tail end with four of those were on days 13 and 14.”
By the end of December, Banff and Lake Louise hit 131 active cases, up from zero approximately two weeks prior. Many businesses in the Bow Valley were hit hard with staff shortages as a result of the rapid spike.
As the case count continued to soar into the New Year, the Town of Banff closed its doors to Town Hall to reduce the risk of spreading the highly contagious Omicron variant to essential service staff like firefighters, enforcement personnel and emergency services.
The municipality has been examining contingency planning for essential services because the Omicron variant is able to infect double-vaccinated employees. The Town is also maintaining Alberta’s work-from-home requirement for all office staff.
“If we didn’t have a Christmas party, we would still be impacted by this,” said Gibson.
As of Tuesday (Jan. 11), the Banff and Lake Louise region had 244 active cases of COVID-19 officially reported by Alberta Health Services, with a per capita rate of 1,814 active cases per 100,000 people - the highest in the province. These numbers are only based on PCR tests, so the true number of active cases is far higher due to provincial changes in testing and reporting requirements.
Banff’s wastewater treatment surveillance data continues to indicate Banff’s rates are very high.
In neighbouring Canmore, there are 248 active cases for an active case rate per 100,000 people of 1,499 – the eleventh highest in Alberta. The Municipal District of Bighorn has 62 active cases, with a per capita case count of 1,217 – at the 20th highest.
Province-wide, there are 58,613 active cases confirmed by PCR testing only. There are 708 people in hospital, including 80 in intensive care.
On Jan, 10, the province made additional changes to PCR testing due to daily testing volumes beginning to exceed system capacity. Wait times for booking a PCR test are now approaching four days and turnaround time for providing results to patients is approaching 48 hours.
PCR testing eligibility will now be focused on those who have clinical risk factors for severe outcomes and those who live and work in high-risk settings. Other Albertans with COVID-19 symptoms are asked to complete at-home rapid antigen testing.
Provincial health officials have said they believe Alberta’s PCR testing program captured about one in four cases of COVID-19 in previous waves of the pandemic. In the fourth wave, that changed to about one in six. The province indicated that the ratio is dropping even more with the Omicron variant.