Alberta students will be heading back to the classroom for in-school learning this fall, the provincial government announced Tuesday.
In-school classes will resume with near-normal daily operations and added health measures — under the province’s Scenario 1 — when class is back in session this September.
“We’re determined to do everything we can to safely return students to class,” Premier Jason Kenney said.
“The return of more than 750,000 students to near-normal learning in the new school year is indicative of Alberta’s continued recovery as we work to relaunch our economy and return to our regular everyday lives.”
The province launched a school re-entry tool kit to prepare students and parents for what they can expect in the upcoming school year.
The Scenario 1 re-entry plan outlines that schools will implement a number of public health measures, which include frequent cleaning of surfaces, placing hand sanitizers at school entrances and classrooms, grouping students in cohorts and planning the school day to allow for physical distancing, which could include staggering start times for classes, recesses and lunches.
“The new normal COVID-19 environment requires all of us to make some adjustments to minimize the risk of transmission,” Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said.
“We are confident that our plan will work.”
LaGrange said there will not be a limit on class sizes, and said “detailed” guidance has been provided to school districts on how to enhance physical distancing and handle student cohorts, for example.
Additional public health measures may be established prior to September on the advice of the chief medical officer of health in consultation with the education system, according to the province.
In addition, students, staff, parents and school visitors will be expected to use a self-screening questionnaire daily to determine whether they can enter the school.
Students and staff may choose to wear masks to school if they want, but it will not be mandatory.
“We recognize how difficult masking would be for many students, especially elementary, which is why we aren’t relying on any single public health measure in the school setting,” Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said.
Province outlines process if COVID-19 cases identified in schools
Kenney said the decision to send students back to class was made now to give families plenty of time to prepare for the fall. He said it was important to get students “back to school and back on track.”
“The evidence is overwhelming that schools can be operated safely with little health risk for children and teachers, and low risk of causing serious outbreaks in the communities that surround them,” Kenney said.
The premier said with students heading back to in-classroom learning, it doesn’t mean there won’t be cases of COVID-19 in schools. Kenney said the province assessed the risks of reopening against the risks of continued closures, and made the best decision to serve the public interest.
If a case of COVID-19 is identified in a student or staff member, the province said a public health team will investigate to determine when symptoms developed and support the school to minimize transmission.
While each case will be addressed based on its unique circumstances, the province said it anticipates in most cases, only the group of students and staff who came in close contact will likely be required to stay home for 14 days and not the entire school population.
Parents will be notified if a case of COVID-19 is confirmed at school, and public health officials will contact those who were in close contact with that person.
Kenney stressed “the protocols may change over time.” The province said it will make changes to the plan based on the advice of Alberta’s chief medical officer of health and in consultation with school authorities.
If there is an outbreak of COVID-19 in a community or school, the province said health officials will work with Alberta Education and school authorities to make any decision to potentially transition to partial in-class learning or at-home learning.
What if parents aren’t comfortable sending children back to class?
Kenney said he understands if parents don’t feel comfortable sending their children back to the classroom and his government has a number of options for their kids’ education.
“We’re not going to force anybody to send their kids to school. Obviously there’s truancy laws but our expectation would be that parents who choose not to send their children back into the classroom, we would respect that choice,” he said.
“Alberta has the most generous rules for and in support of homeschooling of any province in Canada. There’s also blended systems where parents can come together in small groups to provide supplementary support for children who are being homeschooled.”
LaGrange said distance learning is also an option, but encouraged parents to have a close look at the guidelines set out by the government.
“We have developed them in close consultation with Dr. Hinshaw and Alberta Health and all of the education partners,” she said. “We feel confident we have a great plan in place to welcome our kids back safely.”
LaGrange said parents who do not want to send their children back to school should reach out to their local school board.
“If a parent feels uncomfortable, they would go to their school division, they would talk to them and see if they want to continue as they are right now with teacher-directed at-home learning,” she explained. “But it’s up to the school division to facilitate that.
“They will need to have that conversation with the parents as to, is this short-term or long-term, is there a desire for perhaps a blended program, perhaps homeschooling? Those are the types of conversations that happen at the school level. This is not something that is mandated or that the government will become involved in.”
The decision to reopen schools comes after the province said in mid-June it would make a decision about the upcoming school year by Aug. 1.
At that time, the education minister said the goal was to get students back to class in September and laid out three possible scenarios for what school might look like for students.
The first scenario — the one being implemented this fall — sees students return to class normally, with regular class sizes and additional health measures. Those measures would include additional cleaning and disinfecting, routine screening for illness, a stay-at-home policy for staff and students who are ill. Physical distancing would be required wherever possible. Students may be grouped in cohorts, and rooms could be reorganized to create more space.
The second scenario would see in-school classes only partially resumed due to additional health requirements. In that second scenario, classes could be limited in size to 15 people with strict two-metre social distances.
The third, most restrictive option, would see students remain at home and continue online learning.
Kenney announced on Sunday, March 15 that K-12 schools in Alberta would close amid rising cases of COVID-19. Schools would not reopen for the remainder of the school year, with students continuing their learning online.
Tuesday’s school announcement comes as cases of COVID-19 have surged in Alberta in the last few days.
On Monday, Alberta confirmed 368 new cases of COVID-19 and three death related to the disease over the previous three days.
On July 17, there were 165 new cases – the largest jump in cases over a one-day period since May 1, when 218 new cases were confirmed. On July 18, 106 new cases were confirmed and 97 cases were confirmed on July 19.
On Tuesday, Alberta announced 141 new cases were identified on July 20.