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Rural schools close as Alberta's COVID-19 vaccine passport system begins

·3 min read

EDMONTON — Two schools in rural Alberta closed their classrooms Monday over the number of students not attending because of COVID-19 infections as Edmonton police introduced tough new vaccine requirements on the first day of the province's new proof-of-vaccination program.

The Big Valley and Donalda schools, both in central Alberta's Clearview Public School Division, announced that too many students are away from school to continue in-person classes.

"The percentage of students away continues to be over 10 per cent with reported cases of COVID-19," the division said in a release.

The two schools are closed to in-person learning for students in Grades 1 through 9 until Oct. 1. Kindergarten and playschool classes will continue.

"Instruction and learning opportunities will be offered using a combination of online and paper-based materials," the release said. "Classroom teachers will provide a detailed schedule so that students will have direct access to them at specified times during the day."

Alberta Education spokeswoman Nicole Sparrow said the province received the request from the school division, which must be approved before a school can actually close.

"Approval from the Minister of Education is required for a short-term shift of one or more schools or an entire school authority to at-home/online learning," she wrote in an email.

"A decision for a school authority request will be based on the ability of a school to have staff available to operate in-school classes."

The Edmonton Police Service said it will give its members three choices on immunization: vaccinate, pay for their own rapid COVID-19 tests or stay home without pay until the situation changes or one of the first two conditions is met.

"(Police) volunteers and contractors will also be required to either indicate they have been fully vaccinated or submit to rapid testing to engage in their duties," the service said in a release.

Police spokeswoman Chery Sheppard said more than 86 per cent of the service's sworn and civilian employees have been fully vaccinated.

Alberta averaged about 1,500 new cases daily over the weekend, recording 4,633 cases between Friday and Sunday. The province had 954 people with COVID-19 in hospital, 216 of them in intensive care.

The province recorded 22 deaths over the three days.

Earlier Monday, the government released more details about which businesses and institutions come under its restriction exemption plan, allowing eligible public organizations to function more normally.

Retail stores, libraries, hotels and post-secondary institutions will not be required to take part in the program, nor will worshippers at a church, employees on a work site or students on a school trip.

Some restrictions will still apply.

Stores must limit shoppers to one-third of normal capacity, for example, and people in indoor public spaces must still be masked.

Entertainment facilities from restaurants to nightclubs to art galleries are all eligible to participate in the program, allowing them to operate with fewer restrictions as long as they require patrons to show proof of vaccination.

Premier Jason Kenney announced the program last week. Retail stores and libraries were initially on the list of eligible organizations but were removed on the weekend.

Kenney had previously opposed a vaccine passport over what he said were privacy concerns. He switched to support for passports as Alberta's hospitals faced the prospect of being overwhelmed in the pandemic's fourth wave.

Starting Sunday, immunized Albertans could download proof-of-vaccination cards, but some pointed out they could be easily altered.

A health ministry spokeswoman said work continues on a more secure QR code that would be available in the coming weeks. Starting Tuesday, Albertans will be able to request a free, printed version of their vaccination records from a registry agent.

Over the weekend, the province's four largest health-care unions asked Kenney to request help from the military, the Red Cross and any other available medical resources able to assist hospitals caring for an increasing number of patients.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2021.

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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