Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update For Alberta School Authorities

Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health recently confirmed that the COVID-19 can spread person-to-person by larger droplets (cough, sneeze or touching contaminated surfaces). Alberta Health Services (AHS) advised on March 9, 2020, that the exposure risk in Alberta to COVID-19 is assessed as low but anticipates the risk may increase in the coming weeks. In that event, it is important Alberta school authorities are prepared.

At present, school closures have not been recommended for COVID-19 prevention.

As school authorities update pandemic planning to protect student and employee well-being in the context of COVID-19, they may wish to consult these excellent resources:

Areas of pandemic planning review include:

School Cleaning – School authorities should be proactive in assessing whether enhanced cleaning practices are needed and whether additional supplies are to be ordered such as hand sanitizers, hand soap and paper towels in support of hand/desk washing and school cleaning.

Handwashing – Ensure students and employees are apprised of proper hand hygiene to reduce the spread of germs:

  • Ensure students and employees wash hands with soap and water often. If soap and water are not readily available, use alcohol-based hand sanitizers, if hands are not visibly dirty
  • Avoid touching their face with unwashed hands
  • Use a tissue when coughing or sneezing and throw it in a garbage bin lined with a plastic bag. Wash hands immediately after that. If they do not have a tissue, sneeze or cough into their sleeve
  • If students/employees are sick, they should be advised to stay at home
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces that are used often and shared by everyone at school.

International Field Trips

Carefully review all school sponsored field trips planned for Spring Break and into the spring and regularly consult the Government of Canada Travel Advisories. Implement clear communications regarding cancelled school trips (such as trips to Asia and Europe) and monitor daily whether additional cancellations will be required. These difficult decisions will be made to protect students and employees from unnecessary risk of exposure and the possibility of quarantine or self-isolation, either overseas or upon their return to Canada.

When Should Students who have Travelled Remain at Home 

As noted in Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health’s March 3, 2020, Memo to Parents, Alberta public health officials recommend the following precautionary measures:

  • If a student has visited a Grand Princess Cruise, Iran or China’s Hubei province in the last 14 days, it is recommended they self-isolate until 2 weeks have passed since that visit. This is recommended even if they are feeling well;
  • Parents should call Health Link 811 for additional precautions and follow-up testing if their children have travelled to anywhere outside of Canada and experienced any of the following:
    • contact with someone who was suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19
    • were in a health-care facility
    • have symptoms, such as cough or fever
  • If a student does not meet the exposure criteria above, they do not need to stay away from school and will not likely be tested for COVID-19. Therefore, requesting that the student provide a physician’s note is not appropriate. For health-related questions or concerns, parents may call Health Link at 811.

Supporting and Talking to Students

COVID-19 can make students (and families) anxious. Teachers may discuss with students their fears and explain how students may reduce anxiety by having some control in dealing with COVID-19 (i.e. understanding COVID-19, hand washing, etc.) School authorities may wish to ask their teachers to review this helpful American resource, Talking to Children about Coronavirus, from the National Association of School Psychologists.

Students with Special Education Needs

School authorities should examine how they will provide for the physical needs special education students may require at schools in the event a full complement of staff does not attend work.

Travelling Advice

Employees, families and students who are travelling overseas for personal travel should be encouraged to regularly monitor Government of Canada Travel Advisories. The current areas where health travel notices have been issued are China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Iran, Japan, Italy, Singapore, South Korea, and Spain. Impacted areas may change and expand as the situation evolves.

We recommend school authorities also carefully review:

Teachers and Non-Teaching Staff

School authorities should share with their employees information updates and work expectations in context of COVID-19.

If a Teacher/Non-Teaching Staff Member Contracts COVID-19

Employees who contract COVID-19 should be prohibited from attending school/school facilities. These employees should be treated like any other sick employee.

School authorities should assess their obligations to pay employees absent from work due to prolonged illness, family responsibilities or school closures. Such matters should be discussed with central office personnel and school administrators, unions, out of scope representatives and legal counsel. Please review your collective agreements, sick leave/absenteeism policies, employment contracts, disability benefit plans and the Education Act. Alberta’s Employment Standards Code provides that employees who have been employed for at least 90 days are entitled to 5 days of unpaid leave for personal illness or family responsibility, and up to 16 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave for long-term illness.

In the absence of paid sick leave benefits or disability benefits coverage, employees may be entitled to benefits under Canada’s Employment Insurance Act. Under this Act, employees who face a reduction in normal weekly earnings of at least 40% because of illness, injury, or quarantine are eligible for EI sickness benefits, provided they have accumulated sufficient insurable hours. During the 2003 outbreak of SARS, the federal government implemented income loss relief for certain affected employees.

According to Global News, Deputy Prime Minister Christia Freeland indicated yesterday that Canada will help Canadians who may not be able to work because of illness or quarantine by reducing the EI waiting period from 2 weeks to 1 week for COVID-19 patients, and is committed to extending EI benefits to 26 weeks.

Direction to an Employee to Self-Isolate

If a school authority directs a teacher/non-teaching staff member not to attend work due to potential COVID-19 exposure, it may have a legal obligation to pay that employee. In that event, the school authority should provide, where possible, teachers/non-teaching staff with meaningful work to be conducted remotely.

If an Employee Travels to a COVID-19 ‘Hot Zone’

School authorities may limit all travel to essential work-related travel only – as was recently done by the University of Alberta: COVID-19 Travel Directive, March 7, 2:30 p.m.

Employees who elect to travel for personal reasons should be advised to follow Government of Canada Travel Advisories, and be reminded that the spread and location of COVID-19 is changing daily.

Prior to an employee returning to work, a school authority should confirm that the employee has no symptoms of illness.

School authorities should discuss how to best communicate the following with their employees:

  • if employees elect to travel to a ‘hot zone’ during a planned personal vacation, they must advise their school principal/supervisor in advance of this travel
  • that their employment and pay (depending on collective agreement, employment contract, policy, Education Act) may be impacted by a mandatory quarantine or requirement to self-isolate, or any other delay that may result in an extended leave from the work. Whether an employee is paid for that isolation period will depend on:
    • where the employee travelled
    • whether remote work is available
    • collective agreement terms, policy, the Education Act and employment contracts.
  • Each situation would be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and there may be circumstances where requesting an employee stay off work without pay would be reasonable.

Ensuring Safe Work Environments

School authorities have a positive duty under the Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act to provide employees with a safe work environment. Employers should encourage employees who are sick to stay home.

Employees have the right to refuse work that creates a dangerous condition (dangerous conditions involves health and safety hazards not normal to the job). School authorities should perform a written hazard assessment in the context of COVID-19 and make sure workers are informed of the hazards and the methods used to control the hazards. School authorities should also investigate employee concerns and attempt to resolve workplace hazards (in the context of COVID-19) at each site.

COVID-19 as a Disability

Alberta’s Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination and harassment in employment, in part, on the basis of a disability. School authorities should not treat employees differently who have contracted COVID-19 or are required to self-isolate; treating employees differently on the basis of a perceived risk of COVID-19 (e.g., employees who are members of the Iranian community) may amount to discrimination.

Employee Layoffs

Sections 62 to 64 of Alberta’s Employment Standards Code allow employers to temporarily lay off employees for up to 60 days within a 120 day period. In Alberta, temporary layoff notices must be given to employees in writing in accordance with sections 62 to 64 of the Alberta Employment Standards Code. Furthermore, one to two weeks’ advance notice must be given to the employee (depending on length of service). Employees who have been temporarily laid off for more than 60 days within a 120 day period are deemed to be terminated.

School authorities must also follow collective agreement requirements, employment contracts, policy, Alberta Human Rights Act and the Education Act if they intend to proceed with temporary employee layoffs. We would recommend school authorities first seek a written legal opinion prior to proceeding with employee layoffs in the context of COVID-19.

School Closures

School Authorities could also plan for isolation and containment strategies, and possible temporary school closures.

As noted in Alberta Education’s Pandemic Planning Guide for Alberta School Authorities (page 10) the focus of pandemic planning is on prevention. The guide states that in the event of an influenza pandemic, it is possible employee absenteeism could be in the 30% to 40% range, with at least 20% absenteeism being likely. For example, employees may be absent due to their own illness, family illness, or employees may not report to work due to the fear of becoming ill. This level of absenteeism could result in school closures.

Alberta’s Education Act enables school boards to temporarily close schools. We advise you to confirm with Alberta Education who your contact will be at their office in the event COVID-19 worsens and school closures become necessary. Your school authority would be in regular contact with your Alberta Education contact.

If it becomes necessary to close a school, school closure procedures will have to conform to the Education Act. The power to temporarily close a school/program lies with school boards (see section 52(4)(b)). Obviously a decision of this nature would not be made lightly and a school board would have worked closely with Alberta Education and AHS to confirm the facts before it proceeded to temporarily close a school.

School authorities could be directed to temporarily close schools under the Public Health Act if student/employee health or safety were endangered. In making a school closure decision, public health officials and school authorities would take into account considerations such as the impact of school absenteeism and/or staff shortages and balance these factors against the goal of minimizing social disruption & student/employee safety (see pages 47 and 48 of Alberta Education’s Pandemic Planning Guide for Alberta School Authorities).

If a decision were made to close a school(s), school authorities would need to communicate effectively with each school’s parent community advising of the situation. A sample document is found on page 62 here. In the same document, a sample of key messages to the school community is found on pages 67 and 68. A sample press release regarding a school closure is found on page 66.

School Sites

In the event of a COVID-19 outbreak, school authorities themselves should be evaluated for availability of space, First Aid equipment, and other disease prevention supplies. School sites must also be evaluated for their ability to be converted into make-shift clinics should the health care system be overwhelmed during a COVID-19 outbreak.

Joint Use Agreements

Current Joint Use Agreements may not cover a COVID-19 scenario; agreements should be reviewed. School authorities must also consider that school infrastructure may be required by other local authorities, such as health authorities, during a COVID-19 outbreak. In this scenario, school authorities would most likely continue to pay for ongoing costs such as utilities, central office costs, and contracted services that were in place prior to the closure. School authorities should review joint use agreement to understand their rights and obligations.

To assist in meeting school authorities’ responsibilities to ensure a safe work environment a copy of Alberta Education’s Pandemic Planning Checklist is found here.