A new Alberta coalition has come out fighting against the province’s plan to reopen schools on Sept. 2.
The Coalition for a Safer School Relaunch, which represents parents, physicians and educators, has even called the plan “dangerous.”
“When we saw the plan — or lack thereof — come down from the UCP government, we were all alarmed,” said Dr. Katherine Bisby, a family physician based in Calgary.
“It’s not a plan that is going to set our kids up for success and we are quite worried about the health of our communities.”
The coalition, which is comprised of three organizations (abdocs4patients, The RAD Educators Network and Support Our Students Alberta), has come up with 12 strategies it said will make the relaunch safer for students and education workers.
Strategy #1 and #2
Topping the list is to implement a variable class-size cap for all grades, followed by mandatory mask-wearing.
“By far, physical distancing is the No. 1 most essential strategy to help prevent and slow COVID-19,” Support our Students Alberta spokesperson Medeana Moussa said.
Bisby agreed mandatory masks will help, but added it’s not sufficient.
“The spacing and distance issue is huge,” she said. “There’s no way with the current class sizes that our kids will be able to safely distance from each other.”
Moussa dismissed arguments that schools and classrooms aren’t large enough to accommodate physical distancing.
“Maybe we need to use some of the empty schools that are in different districts and some other buildings that are accessible,” Moussa said. “I would like to know if we’ve even measured a single school to understand exactly how much space we do have and whether we’ve been using gyms or all the empty classrooms.”
The group also recommended schools designate cohorts with staggered entry, lunch, recreational and dismissal times.
Student transportation is another key strategy in the relaunch plan. The coalition said that should include limited occupancy to reflect physical distancing and assigned seats.
Other asks on the list include expedited COVID-19 testing and results as well as the free provision of all necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) for education workers.
The group also wants to see clear and transparent protocols for regular screening, positive cases, what defines a school outbreak as well as how many positive cases are required for a school closure.
Bisby said that is important for the entire province — not just parents with school-aged kids.
“If we lose control of COVID(-19) in the schools, it’s going to spread to the community. That’s going to be problematic for all of us,” she added.
“So to think that you can isolate yourself from COVID(-19) because you don’t have children or a spouse in the education system is just unrealistic.”
In an emailed statement, Ministry of Education spokesperson Colin Aitchison said the department is following “the expert medical advice of our chief medical officer of health, who approved our school re-entry plan.”
When it comes to class sizes, Aitchison said it was “completely infeasible to cap class sizes at 15,” which has been proposed by the Opposition NDP, adding that in order to do so, 13,000 teachers would have to be hired and 13,000 classroom spaces would need to be found or built.
The coalition’s relaunch plan also asks for additional funding in the event of a scenario change to provide adequate resources for families and education workers who are unable to properly supervise their children.
Bisby and Moussa acknowledged all 12 of the strategies will only work if adequate funding is provided.
“We need a long-term solution and one that is funded,” Moussa said. “This is a government responsibility to fund education in our province and we have a crisis that needs that support.”
If the support isn’t there, the group suggested delaying the start of the school year.
“I know a lot of parents don’t want to hear that. I’m a parent of four children,” Moussa said.
“But I want a safer school start for my children, and if that means that we need more time to implement effective strategies to keep them safer, then I think that is maybe what we’ll have to do.”
Aitchison said school boards are getting a $120-million boost in funding for operations for the school year and can avail of $363 million in reserve funds. He also referenced the $250 million that was offered to school boards for maintenance and renewal projects — $15 million of which was meant to go toward COVID-19-specific upgrades.
“Alberta Education is in constant communication with Alberta’s school boards, and will continue to work with them to ensure a safe and successful return to school this September,” he said. ”
We are confident that they have the resources they require to ensure a successful transition back to school.”