The Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) is voicing its concerns over Tuesday’s announcement by the province that in-school classes will resume on Sept. 1, saying safety must be the No. 1 priority as schools prepare to reopen during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“What teachers are asking is that the government give them a fighting chance when returning to school in September, and through the long months and potentially years ahead, as we work to ensure stable and equitable support for students learning during this continuing pandemic, ” ATA president Jason Schilling told Global News.
In a news release, Schilling says ministry officials were “collaborating meaningfully” with the association and other stakeholders in developing the initial return-to-school plan but that that engagement effectively ended in late June.
“Teachers had outstanding concerns, and the ATA was led to believe that further discussion would occur, but it has not,” the release stated.
“Successful school reopening is critical to the well-being of students, teachers, staff, their families and the economy, and it requires the confidence of everyone impacted,” Schilling said.
“We believe that with clear, supported measures schools could be a safe space for learning — but outstanding concerns need to be addressed before that can happen.”
LISTEN BELOW: Trisha Estabrooks, chair of the Edmonton Public School Board, joins the Ryan Jespersen Show
The association said it has identified a number of key principles for the government to focus on to ensure the return to school is as safe as possible, including the creation of an assessment protocol to ensure students and adults entering schools are not symptomatic and the establishment of clear protocols for responding to people who become symptomatic at school.
In addition, the ATA is asking for the province to develop detailed outbreak management plans for schools and implement “robust” sick leave policies for all workplaces to support parents to stay home with students who may be symptomatic.
Alberta parents offer mixed reactions to back-to-school announcement
On Tuesday, the province announced 141 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number of active cases in Alberta to 1,193, with 172 deaths reported.
With coronavirus numbers on the rise in Alberta, some people may not feel comfortable sending their kids back to school.
Global News spoke with several parents and students after Tuesday’s announcement, and the reactions were mixed, with many saying they will keep a close eye on COVID-19 numbers in the coming weeks as the new school year approaches.
“It’s hard with young kids because there’s no real social distancing with kids, so ideally I’d like to see them go and be able to have a normal experience. I understand some enhanced cleaning would be needed, but that’s OK,” Alessandra Robertson said.
Student Nicholas Duncan, meanwhile, said he’s enjoyed taking online classes.
“For me, I think it’s better,” Duncan said. “But there are some people that struggle.”
Charlotte Ivancic echoed that sentiment.
“I know that some children aren’t doing well at all with the online learning,” she said. “Some children seem to be doing well with it.”
“Of course, it’s better for children to be in school in general, but in light of the whole COVID-19 situation, I’d say that it’s not the best right now in terms of overall health and safety for our families and for our children.
“I think because COVID-19 is still so rampant and we haven’t found a way to live safely together in our society with it, I think that it’s too early to send children back to the classroom,” Ivancic added. “I think that it’s a huge responsibility to put on the teachers to be constantly monitoring the children, especially younger ones.”
The province has put together a school re-entry tool kit to help prepare students and parents for the upcoming school year, and more information on education and child care amid COVID-19 can be found on its website.
Calgary Board of Education ‘excited’ to welcome back students
In a statement sent to Global News via email, the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) said it is “very excited” to welcome students back on Sept. 1.
“Staff will be focused on rebuilding strong connections with their students, particularly following a prolonged absence from school,” chief superintendent Christopher Usih said.
According to Usih, students, staff and parents can expect a “near-normal” school experience.
“The CBE will strictly follow Alberta Health guidelines to minimize risk of disease transmission,” Usih said. “To do this, we will need everyone’s co-operation to stay home when they are feeling unwell, and to follow all health protocols as they evolve over time.”
The CBE said in-person learning is preferred for all students but acknowledged there are some students who may not be able to return to in-person learning right away.
“For these individuals, the CBE will offer access to an online learning approach in the 2020-21 school year until such time as they are able to return to in-person learning,” Usih explained.
The CBE expects to share its re-entry plan with families next week, including changes that will be implemented in all CBE schools, and said regular updates will be provided throughout August in advance of parents sending their children back to school.
Calgary Catholic School Board ‘not surprised’ by Alberta’s education re-entry plan
The Calgary Catholic School Board said it has been preparing its staff for students to return to the classroom for months now, and is pleased with the province’s decision.
“Yesterday’s announcement wasn’t surprising to us,” chief superintendent Bryan Szumlas said in an interview with Global News Radio 770 CHQR on Wednesday. “So we feel pretty good about yesterday’s announcement.”
Szumlas added that while classrooms may not function the same as before, he’s pleased to see schools returning to some form of normalcy.
“For 135 years we’ve done normal schooling, so we are prepared for that and the health measures that the government wants us to put in place with Alberta Health Services,” he said.
“It’s not going to be easy — we’re educators — and it will be our job to work collaboratively with parents to educate students on the new normal and what it’s like to live in a world with COVID-19.”
According to Szumlas, staff will not be required to wear masks when schools reopen, however, he added teachers will be provided with face shields to optimize health precautions while not inhibiting students’ learning experiences.
“We prefer the face shields because as educators, a lot of non-verbal communication happens.”
Calgary mayor ‘nervous’ about students returning to school
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said he was surprised to see the province announce students would resume in-school classes in the fall, and said he was “quite nervous.”
Nenshi suggested students and teachers should be wearing masks when they return to school.
“Here’s the thing Dr. (Deena) Hinshaw has said approximately five million times: if you cannot stay two meters apart, you must wear a mask indoors – and I cannot imagine how at Sir Winston Churchill High School students can stay six feet apart in the hallways,” Nenshi said.
“We need a better plan from the education minister, we need a better plan from the Government of Alberta.”
“We have to maintain people’s safety,” Nenshi said. “Ultimately, this is the jurisdiction of the Government of Alberta and the Board of Education.”
“I think that it is fair to ask the minister of education for a more thoughtful reopening plan than what we got yesterday.”
Class sizes will be ‘biggest challenge’ for Edmonton Public Schools
The board chair of Edmonton Public Schools said the school division has had several weeks to prepare for all three possible back-to-school scenarios and staff have been working hard to prepare for Scenario 1.
Trisha Estabrooks said she has “full confidence” that staff are ready for the fall and have a good plan in place to keep everyone safe.
“Our division is ready for Scenario 1 and details exactly of what that will look like inside of our schools, we’re expecting to release those publicly in the next week or so.”
However, Estabrooks noted that class sizes will be a big challenge.
“Space is already a challenge for many of our schools, many of our classrooms. So when we consider looking at following some of those social distancing protocols that are being advised by the chief medical officer of health, I don’t want to mince words here, but that is going to be our biggest challenge,” she said.
“How do we set up our classes so that kids can be two metres apart? And I’ll be honest, there will be situations where that will not be possible.
“We will have to put other measures in place, for example, more frequent handwashing, perhaps having students face all in the same direction.,” Estabrooks added. “There’s going to have to be some creative solutions that we’ll have to come up with and that staff are working on to address this but that is our biggest challenge.”
Estabrooks said another challenge will be finding the money to pay for the additional cleaning supplies. She said it will cost Edmonton public $2.5 million for PPE, hand sanitizer and additional cleaning supplies, and that will only get them through the first couple of months of the school year.
“It’s clear that this government expects boards to spend our reserve money on these COVID-19 supplies. And quite frankly, when we look at Edmonton public and our reserves, we have $26.9 million in reserves right now — we worked hard to collect that money… And in my mind, using money that is intended to support students, to support classrooms — sometimes we spend that money on infrastructure needs — to use that money on cleaning supplies and hand sanitizers is just not acceptable.”
Estabrooks said she hopes to have further conversations with the province around the cost of cleaning supplies in hopes a solution can be found.
With files from Jenna Freeman