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When covid hits the school system

·6 min read

This week the Temple City Star will give you a behind-the-scenes look at the heavy process undergone again and again by school and division staff with each confirmed case of covid within their buildings. In an interview with Westwind school division communications officer Rebecca Bultsman we get an up close and personal look at the huge undertaking it has been for staff to keep kids in school, follow guidelines, and keep everyone as safe as possible.

Bultsma shares that the process starts when the superintendent, Darren Mazutinec, receives a phone call from his contact at Alberta Health Services (AHS), from the office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, South Zone. “AHS lets the Superintendent know we have a confirmed case, how many, and from which school or schools,” Bultsma says. “From here he starts a Zoom meeting with everyone who needs to be involved -- the heads of maintenance and transportation, the communications officer, assistant superintendents, and administrators from affected schools.” The calls from AHS often come between 6 and 9pm, both on weekdays and weekends, requiring the close contact team to give up their personal or family time in an effort to keep students and staff safe.

“The ZOOM meetings are quick now that everybody has run through it quite a few times and knows their roles,” says Bultsma “but the entire team ends up sacrificing their evening as we are in a race to get communications out to families before it gets too late to send out texts and phone calls to parents”. Duties are divided out: the maintenance team disinfects the school, focusing heavily on the classrooms affected, and the close-contact team works with the transportation department to pull seating charts and attendance records if the student was bussed. While only students seated within three rows of the confirmed case during transport are added to the close contact list, each and every student in the affected classrooms go on the list.

School principals work with central office staff to identify the classes the positive cases attended and each and every student in the affected classrooms goes on the close contact list. “We are given a range of days that the confirmed case may have been at school and possibly contagious”, Bultsma explains, “so we check every class they were in those two to three days, every single student who was in their class, confirm their attendance, and each one of them gets the letter from AHS.”

The guidelines are slightly different for the adults identified within the affected classrooms. The decision of whether to put adults on the close-contact list is determined by whether they float around between desks, or choose to teach solely from the front of the room or from behind plexiglass. Staff members are encouraged to maintain a safe distance while working, and if it is determined that they were not within six feet of the affected student for longer than 15 minutes, they may not be required to isolate. The exception is that if the confirmed case is determined to be a variant of concern (VOC), the teacher will automatically be required to isolate. “I appreciate the relationship we have with Alberta Health as we discuss staffing and our compliance with their guidelines,” says Superintendent Darren Mazutinec. “We know the best indicator of learning is the quality and presence of the teacher in the classroom and I’m glad Alberta Health works with us to determine whether or not teachers need to isolate.”

Once the close contact list is created, letters are sent to the affected families that include start and end dates of isolation. In warning, Bultsma shares “this is when it becomes extremely important that we have up- to-date contact information for parents/guardians, so the students can receive critically important communications from the school about positive cases and close contacts.” Letters vary depending on how many confirmed cases there are in a school. In Alberta, one case in a school is not investigated by AHS, although close contacts are still required to isolate. 2-4 cases initiate an AHS investigation and a letter sent to the entire school alerting all families, even those not considered close contacts. Five-plus cases is considered an outbreak, and at times large outbreaks have resulted in schools shutting down. For example, last month the superintendent received permission from those “high up in chains of command within the Alberta government to transition Cardston Junior High students to online learning when there were nine students infected in a short period of time and a large number of students were in mandatory self-isolation”. Bultsma says “the letter AHS asks us to send to families is very specific and we aren’t able to edit or change it. A new set of letters is sent for each case.” After contacting those on the list, the division is required to enter close contact information into a spreadsheet and send it to AHS. While there have been no reports of students being checked in on by AHS during isolation, presumably this could happen if there was concern that families were not following mandatory isolation measures.

Even if a student does not come into contact with other students during their possible contagion period (which sometimes happens on long weekends or over other school breaks), the student is still counted in the school’s total cases on the school outbreak maps on the Government of Alberta website. AHS notifies the Superintendent in the same way but shares that there was no possibility of contact and no action is required by the school. If a confirmed case is a family, with children in different schools, the close-contact notification process is repeated multiple times in multiple schools. Bultsma notes “often when an entire family test positive and we have to repeat our close contact process with multiple schools, classrooms, and buses in the same evening.”

The message the school division wants the community to understand is that schools are doing everything they can to keep kids learning inside, and outside, of the classroom safely.

Superintendent Darren Mazutinec hopes the community recognizes how hard the division is working to follow all the AHS guidelines and keep students safe. “Our central office team, our technology, maintenance and transportation departments, principals, and everyone in our schools and behind the scenes is going above and beyond. We’re doing everything we can to help protect students so that hopefully we can return to life as we know it, and students can once again enjoy all that public education has to offer.”

Elizabeth Thompson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Temple City Star