Rural schools shutter as Alberta begins COVID-19 vaccine passport system

People line up outside an immunization clinic in Edmonton on April 20, 2021. A pair of schools in central Alberta have closed their classrooms and shifted to online learning, reporting that more than 10 per cent of students are away because of COVID-19.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Two schools in rural Alberta are closing their classrooms over the number of students not attending because of COVID-19 infections.

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

“At the time of writing this letter, the percentage of students away continues to be over 10 per cent with reported cases of COVID-19,” the school division said in a release.

The announcement came on the first day of the Alberta government’s new proof-of-vaccination program that allows some businesses and public facilities to operate without capacity limits and other public health measures.

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Schools in Donalda and Big Valley have closed their classrooms to in-person learning for students in Grades 1 through 9 starting Monday and until Oct. 1. Kindergarten and playschool classes will continue to be held.

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

More such closures are likely, said New Democrat education critic Sarah Hoffman.

“We know that hundreds of cases of this deadly virus have been reported among students attending schools across Alberta,” she said in a release. “We’re beginning to see some schools closed and students forced to learn at home yet again.”

An Alberta Education spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

Earlier Monday, the province released more details about which businesses and institutions come under its Restriction Exemption plan.

Retail stores, libraries, hotels and postsecondary 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.

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

Eligible facilities that choose not to participate must work under public health rules that include capacity limits and mask requirements for indoor public spaces.

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 were easily altered.

A health ministry spokeswoman said work continues on a more secure QR code that would be available in the coming weeks.

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.

The United Nurses of Alberta, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta and the Canadian Union of Public Employees all said Alberta’s health-care system is collapsing right in front of their eyes.

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