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Coronavirus: Alberta to explain Wednesday where federal school reopening money is going

Alberta’s education minister will announce Wednesday how the province will use its portion of the $2 billion the federal government announced last week to help school boards across the country deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

While at an announcement on Tuesday, Premier Jason Kenney said Adriana LaGrange was finishing up her consultation with school boards and superintendents that day and would be making the announcement on where Alberta’s $262 million will be directed on Wednesday. A news conference is scheduled for 11 a.m. and will be livestreamed above.

Click to play video 'Teachers, NDP accuse Premier Kenney of misleading Albertans over cost of cutting class sizes' Teachers, NDP accuse Premier Kenney of misleading Albertans over cost of cutting class sizes
Teachers, NDP accuse Premier Kenney of misleading Albertans over cost of cutting class sizes

“We appreciate the cooperation of school boards and superintendents in developing the Alberta principles for the safe re-entry of schools,” Kenney said.

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Read more: Coronavirus: Ottawa giving provinces $2B for back-to-school safety

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the funding on Aug. 26 while at an elementary school in Toronto.

While education is a provincial responsibility, Trudeau said he had been hearing from Liberal MPs that parents were still concerned even after the provinces laid out their plans.

“So we said, ‘Let’s give the provinces even more resources to be able to do everything that is necessary to keep our kids safe,”’ he said last week.

Click to play video 'Coronavirus: Canada to give provinces $2B to help kids return to school safely' Coronavirus: Canada to give provinces $2B to help kids return to school safely
Coronavirus: Canada to give provinces $2B to help kids return to school safely

Though Kenney said his government is appreciative to the federal government for the additional funding, he cautioned parents that it’s not going to result in significantly reduced class sizes.

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Read more: Alberta school boards appreciate federal funding but some ‘disappointed’ by province’s response

According to Kenney, to cut current class sizes in half would cost billions of dollars — to build hundreds of new schools and training, certifying and hiring enough teachers.

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“We estimate that reducing class sizes in half would cost about $4 billion. Here we’re talking about $260 million from the federal government. So that is one fifteenth of the estimated cost of reducing class sizes in half,” he said.

“So that gives you a scale of proposals to reduce class sizes in half are actually proposals to keep the schools shut.”

The Opposition NDP has proposed the provincial government shouldn’t even consider reopening schools until it can guarantee class sizes of no more than 15 students.

Click to play video 'Are Albertans losing faith in Dr. Hinshaw and the province? Kenney defends back-to-school plan' Are Albertans losing faith in Dr. Hinshaw and the province? Kenney defends back-to-school plan
Are Albertans losing faith in Dr. Hinshaw and the province? Kenney defends back-to-school plan

Kenney said he’s accepted all along that COVID-19 infections in schools are inevitable and that’s no reason to keep classrooms shuttered.

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“We appreciate the additional federal funding, but there is no world in which you could reduce class sizes in half and reopen the schools for the current school year,” Kenney said.

“It’s simply fictitious. It has nothing to do with reality.”

It’s a claim the president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association refutes.

In a statement, Jason Schilling said the premier is “inflating the costs of class size reductions” and the number is “misleading Albertans about the province’s ability” to take steps to ensure the safety of students, staff and the community.

“Teachers and the association have never advocated for reducing class sizes by half,” he said. “What we would like to see are more resources and supports provided to school divisions and principals so they have more opportunities to reduce the size of our largest classes, especially at the upper grades.”

The news release was sent at around 4:20 Tuesday afternoon. At that point, the ATA said it had not been consulted about how to best use the promised federal funding.

Read more: Alberta students will not be required to be distanced when seated in class: Dr. Deena Hinshaw

According to a survey the ATA did with members, more than half of the teachers surveyed reported feeling unhappy or very unhappy and 94 per cent of teachers said maintaining distancing measures is the most challenging preventative measure in the days and weeks ahead.

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“Too many teachers are already reporting class size assignments in the mid-to-high 30s,” Schilling said. “The science is clear that reducing cohort size and increasing physical distancing are among the most important things that can be done to reduce the spread in schools.”

Read more: ‘I feel for parents’: Dr. Hinshaw regrets confusing COVID-19 orders as schools reopen

Alberta’s school reentry plan has been under additional scrutiny after a health order was signed by the province’s chief medical officer of health over the weekend that stated students would not be required to distance from one another when seated in their desks when they return to school.

Click to play video 'Reducing Alberta class sizes would cost $4 billion: Kenney' Reducing Alberta class sizes would cost $4 billion: Kenney
Reducing Alberta class sizes would cost $4 billion: Kenney

“The same concerns that are being raised here are being raised in every other province and every other jurisdiction around the world and we are trying to learn from the experiences of those schools that did reopen earlier,” Kenney said Tuesday.

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“It’s on that evidence that the chief medical officer of health developed her advice to the government.”

According to a news release from the government, LaGrange will make the announcement at 11 a.m. The education minister will be joined by Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

With a file from The Canadian Press