Edmonton schools say they’re as safe as they can be when classes resume next week

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WATCH ABOVE: From masks and sanitizers, to gyms filled with desks, both Edmonton public and Catholic school boards say they've done what they can to prepare for the first day of school next week. Fletcher Kent went along for a tour inside two schools to see what is different due to COVID-19. – Aug 28, 2020

Thousands of Edmonton students will be returning to class next week for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close.

The Edmonton Public School Board chair applauded all the work administrators have done over the summer to make classrooms safe for students. Trisha Estabrooks said the school division has done everything it can with the resources it has.

However, when asked if all the new safety measures will work, Estabrooks paused and said, “I hope so.”

She said she would like more resources from the province.

“We do need additional funding in order to truly strengthen the plan and truly make it safe for all students.”

Her comments came as school administrators at Lillian Osborne High School toured the media through the building in the Terwillegar area to demonstrate what they have done to help protect students from COVID-19.

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READ MORE: COVID-19: Face masks for Alberta students, school staff to be delivered by Friday

The school of 2,000 will now assign specific entrances to each student. There is hand sanitizer at every entrance and students will be expected to use it as they enter and exit the building.

Lane marking tape now lines the hallways with directional arrows telling students where and how they can walk.

Arrows and lane markers direct foot traffic at Lillian Osborne High School in Edmonton, Alta. Fletcher Kent/Global News

Areas where students used to gather and talk during lunch hour are now off-limits. There’s no stopping anymore and masks will be required.

Timetables have been adjusted, too. In high school, students will only take one morning and one afternoon class.

Read more: Edmonton public, Catholic boards changing up high school schedules for 2020-21

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“We will be able to cohort our students into two cohorts per day instead of four, so they can limit contact,” said Lillian Osborne High School’s principal, Bryan Radmanovich.

Inside classrooms, hand sanitizer and wipes are available at the door. A lot has changed since students last roamed these halls.

A science lab at Lillian Osborne High School in Edmonton is ready for 35 students when classes resume. Fletcher Kent/Global News

However, some things haven’t changed much — specifically student numbers and the space for them.

Radmanovich escorted reporters into one science lab, where 35 students will use the room when classes begin. Two students will share each workbench and each bench will be butted up to another one.

“You can see in a room like this, physical distancing will be nearly impossible,” Radmanovich said.

“So we’re relying on the fact we’re going to be wearing masks and doing proper hand sanitizing.”

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Standard classroom at Lillian Osborne High School in Edmonton, Alta. Fletcher Kent / Global News

A spokesperson for the education minister provided a statement to Global News regarding criticisms of the province’s school re-entry plan.

Colin Aitchison wrote, “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. We will continue to work with Dr. Hinshaw and our education system, and will adjust our guidelines as necessary.”

A few kilometres from Lillian Osborne High School in the Windermere area, Edmonton Catholic opened one of its elementary schools for a tour on Friday.

St. John XXIII principal Michael Kovacs describes similar locker and fountain restrictions. He talks about being unable to learn in certain common areas and having to find storage for the 40 carpets he needed to remove from classrooms.

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READ MORE: Edmonton family heads back to school 3 different ways

Space challenges are apparent at St. John XXIII, too.

In the music classroom, teacher Julie Scott has prepared for a very different year. Students won’t be playing any wind instruments in class. There also won’t be any singing.

Instead, Scott will focus on percussion — to that end, 31 drums are set up for students.

“It’s tight. It’s very tight,” Scott said. “I wish we could expand the walls out.”

In kindergarten classrooms, students will use small circular tables. At first, teachers say they’ll try to have only three of the six seats filled at each table, but they’ll likely all be used very soon.

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Kovacs said he can’t change how many students are in a room. Young students can’t be expected to sit in a chair alone for eight hours. He says planning will make all the difference.

“You have to have a system. In a large school like this, you have to have protocols all the time,” Kovacs said.

READ MORE: Nearly 30% of students have opted for online learning: Edmonton Public Schools

There will be many new protocols. Kovacs said he meets with teachers to go over health and safety issues at the beginning of every year. Typically, the meeting lasts half an hour and there’s a three page agenda.

This year, Kovacs said the health and safety meeting agenda is 100 pages long and growing. He expects the discussion will last 5 to 6 hours. It’s precautions like this, he says, that will keep kids as safe as they can be.

Outside the school, a few dozen parents said they’re not that confident. They were protesting the province’s support of back-to-school efforts. They want more money given to school boards to allow for smaller class sizes.

Angela Pierre has four children in school and the last few weeks have been difficult on her.

“It’s been excruciating. I stress about it. I’m barely sleeping some nights thinking about it. Worrying about it. I’m super-worried,” Pierre said.

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“I feel like it’s a science experiment. And how are we going to keep our kids safe in the midst of a science experiment?”

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