Sick children and rising absenteeism from school worry parents in Alberta – Edmonton Journal | Team Cansler

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As more children in Alberta fall ill and miss school, parents and health workers are raising concerns about how the health system will deal with even more illness through the remainder of the winter.

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Last week, the sickness-related absenteeism rate for students at Edmonton Public Schools rose to more than 10 percent, and was about 13 percent Monday through Wednesday. About 105,000 students were scheduled for classes on those days, according to publicly available EPSB data.

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A spokesman for the Edmonton Catholic School District said Tuesday 16 percent of their students were absent due to illness, equivalent to about 7,400 children.

In a November 7 letter to parents, ECSD Chief Superintendent Robert Martin said there had been a “significant increase” in reported viruses and diseases, which was driving the rise in absenteeism.

“While maintaining in-person learning is our priority, operational challenges may require switching individual classes or grades to online learning as needed,” Martin wrote.

In a statement, a spokesman for Edmonton Catholic Schools said no classes have yet had to go online and would only be considered “after all other options for maintaining in-person learning have been explored.” ECSD has already “changed operations” and deferred professional development to ensure more substitute teachers are available.

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Meanwhile, a data request from Postmedia in Calgary found that public schools had an average sickness-related absenteeism rate of 8.8 percent of students in the first week of November — more than double the rate last month.

When a school reports an illness rate above 10 percent, Alberta Health Services is notified and investigates a possible outbreak.

Edmonton pediatrician Tehseen Ladha said she’s seen school-age and preschool-age children getting sick more often, and while it’s officially flu season, it’s earlier in the year than she expected so many children to get sick.

“I have patients and families who are just getting over one viral disease and then get struck by another,” she said. “Some of them have been literally sick for the last eight to 10 weeks since school started.”

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Wing Li, communications director for the Support Our Students Alberta advocacy group, said she knows this experience all too well as a mother of two elementary-school children.

“They missed a lot of classes,” she said. “We have said in our home that every day the children can go to school is a bonus, which is an indication of how common it seems (illness) has been.”

A student is seen at Svend Hansen School in Edmonton on October 19, 2022.
A student is seen at Svend Hansen School in Edmonton on October 19, 2022. Photo by LARRY WONG /Postmedia Network

“This winter crush is going to be worse than any other”

COVID-19 continues to circulate, but the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are also hitting hard. A tough season for other respiratory illnesses is something experts have warned against as public health measures like mandatory mask requirements indoors no longer apply.

Confirmed influenza A cases in Alberta rose sharply in late October, jumping almost as high as the peak of the last regular flu season in 2019, which was only reached in late December of this year.

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Ladha said one of her biggest concerns is that the health system will not have the capacity to cope in the coming months.

“This winter swarm is going to be worse than any in history here, in a pediatric sense,” she said.

Wait times in Alberta’s emergency departments have been volatile in recent months, but many patients and healthcare workers have raised the alarm about long delays in care. As of Sunday afternoon, Alberta Health Services reported an estimated five-and-a-half hour wait in the emergency room at Stollery Children’s Hospital.

“Personally, I’ve had families of patients come into the ER, wait five or six hours, and go home. Your child is worse the next day, so they come back, wait five or six hours and go home,” said Ladha.

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“Then they end up calling an ambulance if their child can’t breathe well the next night.”

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health is expected to issue a plea for the public to wear masks on Monday, but missed a new mandate. The province’s pediatric intensive care units are overwhelmed, and Toronto’s SickKids Hospital has been forced to cancel non-urgent surgeries amid a spate of sick children.

Ladha said measures like masking in schools, as well as indoor public spaces, would also help ease the situation in Alberta, even if it’s a temporary move.

But Prime Minister Danielle Smith has vowed the government will “not allow” mask mandates in the province’s K-12 education system.

When asked on Saturday about the rise in respiratory illnesses and absenteeism from school, Health Secretary Jason Copping said the government is addressing the situation as it did before the COVID pandemic.

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“We’ve been more focused now that we’re in the endemic phase of what, honestly, we’ve been doing before — in terms of flu and RSV season.”

He said higher absenteeism rates could also be due to parents being more likely to keep children at home when they are sick, following advice over the past two and a half years.

In terms of strengthening health system capacity, Copping said the government is considering “a number of options” and he expects to make further announcements in the coming weeks.

The Edmonton Public School Board scheduled a special meeting for Tuesday to discuss the letter to the province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health “to request clarity about the data used to establish additional health protocols.”

Li said for parents it is another uncertain time.

“We want to see some public health leadership to keep in-person schooling going as much as possible,” she said.

“The frustration is a lack of information, a lack of guidance about what we could be preparing for.”

— With files from Eva Ferguson and The Canadian Press


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