On the same day that Alberta’s chief medical officer warned the province had entered a COVID-19 “danger zone,” a high school principal in Edmonton learned three students at his school had tested positive for the virus.
The news that morning at Archbishop O’Leary High School set off a complicated yet practiced reaction, as assistant principals and front office staff dropped everything to focus on contact tracing and informing parents.
“We know what we need to do, and we just get it done,” said Todd Eistetter, the school’s principal.
Eistetter said the school has unfortunately had a lot of practice: since the start of the school year, 12 positive cases have been recorded at Archbishop O’Leary, including the three cases identified Oct. 20. All have involved students and community transmission, not in-school spread.
With more than 360 schools reporting COVID-19 cases since Aug. 30, a similar response is underway at schools across the province. And as cases in Alberta continue to rise — a record number of 406 new COVID-19 cases were reported Oct. 21 — more schools, staff and students may face the same challenges as Eistetter and the staff of Archbishop O’Leary.
“I would say right now we are in a danger zone, where the coming weeks will really tell that story about whether we are able collectively to bend that curve downwards,” said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer, at an afternoon update Oct. 20.
At O’Leary, where the cases keep coming, Eistetter said the situation is taking a significant toll on everyone.
“Our custodians, the work that they do to clean and sanitize, is outstanding. Our teachers and support staff, they’re working their butts off,” Eistetter said. “And I’m not sure how much longer that this can go on, because the stress, the anxiety, the workload for all my staff is nothing that I’ve ever, ever come across before.”
When a family member calls the school to let them know a student has tested positive, Eistetter said staff immediately start checking who shared classrooms with that student. They pore over log books to determine what washrooms the student may have used and where else in the building they may have been.
Next, Eistetter talks to affected teachers and students while assistant principals make phone calls to all parents of possible contacts. Data is shared with the school’s central office and Alberta Health Services.
As affected students and staff self-isolate, substitute teachers are brought in. The logistics involved are incredible, Eistetter said.
Archbishop O’Leary High School principal, Todd Eistetter.
Amid all this, staff also juggle teaching online classes for the 400 students who chose to learn online, as well as adhering to the many new protocols in place for the 1,500 students learning in person.
With more than a quarter of the student population having to self-isolate less than two months into the school year, Eistetter is worried about the impact on students’ learning.
“They’re going from in-person to now doing it online, when they had chosen to be in school. And my staff, they’re having to turn on a dime from teaching in school to now they’re doing it online. So it makes it very, very challenging,” he said.
Staff morale is very low, Eistetter said, because everyone is exhausted. He worries about the mental health of his staff.
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Alberta, Eistetter isn’t sure what more can be done to help schools, staff and students. He thinks the central office is doing a good job trying to address what’s going on, and said the government making diploma exams optional this term is a big step.
In the meantime, he knows his staff will jump into action if there are more COVID-19 cases at the school. A strong sense of team prevails, Eistetter said.
“Our staff are doing an excellent job, they really are, but it’s taking a significant toll on absolutely everybody.” ❚