Rallies are being held across Alberta Friday, with those involved calling for more funding for schools as students head back to class in the fall.
Protests are being held outside of the constituency offices of MLAs in nearly 30 ridings across the province. Those taking part are calling for more money to be given to school boards so they can make their schools safe. This includes more funding for personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer. They’re also asking for funding to accommodate reduced class sizes.
While protesters acknowledge there are options for online learning this fall, they say that’s not possible for everyone.
“We just want to be heard and we want our kids to be safe when they return to school,” rally organizer and parent Stacey Speta said.
“Because while there are different options, and some people are lucky to keep their kids home, that isn’t always the option for everyone.
“There are families who are low income or single parents where that isn’t an option. So just because they aren’t able to keep their kids home, they shouldn’t have to worry about the safety of their children as well as themselves.”
In southwest Edmonton, protesters gathered outside Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu’s office.
Grade 6 teacher Kathleen Degeer said she came to show support for her students. She said additional funding is needed to cut down class sizes and hire more custodial staff.
“I have tried to separate desks before for a really chatty group and even then I couldn’t get a foot between the desks,” she said, regarding the challenge of physical distancing within the classroom.
“I just know we can try our hardest, kids can do everything they can and districts can do everything they can but it’s just not possible to be completely safe.”
High school teacher Kirsty Ball shared similar concerns about distancing. She said some of her classes include upwards of 35 students.
“The current plan that the UCP has proposed and that they insist on, it’s not a safe plan,” she said. “I don’t have enough space to social distance to have them all in the class safely. We need more teachers so we can split down class sizes. There needs to be a cap.
“The fact that we don’t have funding is really concerning.”
John McDermott doesn’t have children in school anymore, but said he came to show his support as a concerned citizen.
“I’m very concerned about the safety of the kids, the teachers, the staff and the community,” he said. “This plan is not a plan… It’s ludicrous.
“We need significant funding to have a reasonable plan for getting kids safely back to school and that includes much smaller class sizes.”
Read more: Edmonton school divisions lay out online learning plans for those not returning to school
Madu came out of his office to speak with those gathered outside.
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“They’ve got their views. The fact is, we relied on the advice of the chief medical officer of health and our health-care professionals,” he said. “I want to believe that citizens would expect their government to make decisions on the basis of advice that has been provided by those who are tried with the responsibility to look into those subject areas.”
He added that he has three children, all of whom will be heading back to in-person learning within Edmonton Public Schools this fall.
“I have three children, all of which are in public schools and they are going to be attending school, yes.”
In a statement Friday, the ministry of education said ensuring the safety and well-being of staff and students has guided all of its decision making around school re-entry since classes were cancelled in March.
“We understand that Albertans want what is best for their children as they return to school this fall, and that is why we continue to follow the expert medical advice of our chief medical officer of health, who approved our school re-entry plan,” the statement read.
“The plan also has support from our school superintendents and school boards, and was developed in consultation with the education system.
“It is disappointing voices on social media and in the opposition continue to politicize the decisions made by non-partisan medical experts. We will continue to work with Dr. Hinshaw and our education system, and will adjust our guidelines as necessary.”
The statement made no mention of whether further funding would be provided to school boards.
Read more: Alberta Grade 4-12 students, teachers will be required to wear masks in schools this fall
Friday’s rallies come one day after Alberta’s top doctor once again defended the school re-entry plan.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Thursday she plans to send her kids back to the classroom for in-person school this fall. She also reiterated, though, that parents need to make the decision that works best for them and their families.
“As a parent of school-aged children, I have decided the value of in-school learning outweighs the risks for my family,” Hinshaw said Thursday.
“Each parent is uniquely positioned to make the best decision for their family and school authorities have worked to provide innovative options to support student learning, wherever that may be.”
Hinshaw said that while some may question the decision to reopen schools at all during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said it is important to look at the overall health of the population and “everything that contributes to health.”
Hinshaw said officials can’t look at COVID-19 alone, but also other risks. She said measures put in place months ago to limit the spread of the virus “came with their own risks to health and wellness.”
“We must learn how to live with this virus,” she said. “And how to find the right balance between preventing uncontrolled COVID-19 spread and preventing the harms that come from shutting down essential parts of our society.”
Read more: Coronavirus: Alberta’s top doctor sending her children to school, continues to defend re-entry plan
Hinshaw said it’s important to look at the big picture and not dwell on one or two examples of successes or failures elsewhere in the world.
“There is a dizzying array of information available on schools and COVID-19 transmission in children,” she said.
“It can feel hard to make sense of it all, especially when it sometimes seems to be contradictory.”
Hinshaw said a broad look at the available evidence suggests kids are less likely to get seriously sick if infected and that childhood infections don’t seem to drive community spread. It also shows that younger children are less likely to infect others than older ones, who seem to transmit the virus at the same rate as adults, she said.
Earlier this week, the president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association met with the education minister and requested that the start of the school year be pushed back to Sept. 7 in order to give school boards more time to prepare for in-classroom learning.
“We’re taking a medical plan that’s been put forward by the chief medical officer of health, and trying to make it an education plan, and teachers and principals need the time to reconcile those two things together,” ATA president Jason Schilling said Wednesday.
Schilling said the minister seemed open to hearing the association’s concerns and suggestions.
Read more: Alberta Teachers’ Association requests school year delay at meeting with education minister
In a statement, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said her ministry is following advice from Hinshaw.
“As always, my ministry, department officials and I are happy to meet our stakeholders to receive their input on this important matter,” her statement read in part.
LaGrange added that there may be adjustments made to the re-entry plan depending on the advice given by Hinshaw.
With files from Allison Bench, Global News and The Canadian Press.