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COVID-19 mitigation, contact notifications costing Alberta schools more than money

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As the fourth wave of the pandemic overwhelmed Alberta hospitals, dozens of schools began to report absence rates of 10 per cent or higher, and the government was forced to act. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
As the fourth wave of the pandemic overwhelmed Alberta hospitals, dozens of schools began to report absence rates of 10 per cent or higher, and the government was forced to act. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

Alberta school divisions are a few weeks into shouldering the task of COVID-19 contact notifications in their schools — and they say it's costing them both dollars, manpower, and in many ways — the quality of education they can provide.

When the school year started, unlike the year before, Alberta Health Services was not notifying schools of positive test results, so districts were relying on parents to tell them if their children were ill with no support from the province.

As the fourth wave of the pandemic overwhelmed Alberta hospitals, dozens of schools began to report absence rates of 10 per cent or higher, and the government was forced to act.

The province announced Oct. 5 it would be bringing back contact tracing in schools — but not immediately — and individual school districts would need to take on the job, and subsequently the associated costs, for at least six weeks.

'Huge human resource costs'

Medicine Hat Public School Division said it planned to spend more than $90,000 this year on specific measures related COVID-19 mitigation, including masks, air filters, and enhanced cleaning, but superintendent Mark Davidson said taking on contact notifications this fall means that number is ballooning.

"Through the course of the year, it'll be significantly higher than $120-ish-thousand for the contact tracing portion and all the other measures we've put in place."

The Foothills School Division says its board has authorized the expenditure of up to $250,000 from the district's budget for COVID-19 management, including hiring and contracting staff when necessary.

Calgary's Catholic board says it earmarked $4.5 million from its budget for COVID-19 mitigation, and while superintendent Bryan Szumlas said it's hard to put an exact dollar amount on the cost of contact notifications, it's also costing them in other ways.

"There's a huge human resource costs — let's face it — from principles out in the field to our I.T. people. This is a big distraction. Our business is student success in helping our students navigate through the curriculum," he said. "And unfortunately, all through COVID, it's been a distraction."

'More dislocated learning year than last year'

Davidson agrees.

"If you really think about it, there are other things that probably aren't even calculated into [mitigation costs] and that would be the additional cost of staff absences when they're awaiting test results, the cost of subs — and all of those kinds of things."

He said these estimations don't even begin to cover staffing, or resources needed to support pandemic learning loss, or increased numbers of students learning from home.

"Our staff tell us that this year has actually been a more dislocated learning year than last year because last year if there was a case in a class, the whole class went home and learning happened online," he said.

"Now there's one in class. Some kids are at home. Some kids are there, so because teacher and students aren't shifting to the same modality together, you might have half a class or a third of a class at home."

Many school divisions have also had to move staff around to accommodate the task. At Rocky View School Division for example, one administrator has temporarily become a full-time COVID-19 case manager, tasked with the job of supporting schools in their case notifications and outbreak management.

Funding available to schools

The province says it's confident school authorities have been provided the support they need to do the work.

In a statement, which has been provided numerous times by the province in response to questions about the cost of COVID-19 in schools, Alberta Education spokesperson Nicole Sparrow said during the pandemic school authorities have had access to over $1 billion in taxpayer funding for COVID-19.

"This includes a $120 million increase in operating funding for all school authorities across the province, $250 million in accelerated capital maintenance and renewal funding, access to taxpayer-funded board reserves, as well as $130 million in COVID- 19 mitigation funding," she wrote.

"This level of funding is highlighted by the growing taxpayer-funded school board reserves across the province, which early indications are showing sit at over $400 million dollars, compared to $363 million at the start of the pandemic."

AHS taking lead in November

AHS said right now it's working to re-establish reporting processes and scale up the school teams to do the work, and it will take over the lead on contact notification in schools early next month.

"The AHS Public Health team determines if a COVID-19 case attended school while they were infectious. AHS sends newly identified COVID-19 cases who attended school while infectious to superintendents on a daily basis," it said in a statement.

"The school authority/designate then identifies groups exposed to the case, as identified by AHS, and distribute a letter from AHS to parents/guardians, students, and staff who were identified as part of the group."

AHS said as of last week it has approximately 1,124 case investigators and contact tracers, in addition to 295 staff. It did not say how many of those people make up the school teams.

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