In an interview Tuesday with Global News, Alberta’s education minister defended the government’s handling of the COVID-19 return-to-school plan.
Adriana LaGrange spoke with reporter Julia Wong for 45 minutes Tuesday morning, where she was asked about a sweeping variety of topics, including distancing, school funding and whether she will visit an Alberta school.
Distancing, class sizes and school funding
LaGrange said that she believes the government is doing “everything we can to support our school divisions” as students learn amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
When asked if she believes schools should reduce class sizes, LaGrange said it’s up to individual divisions to decide that — but that health officials in the province have told her the cohort system is more important than how many people are in each classroom.
“We have already enabled school divisions to do what they need to do,” she said.
“They’re the ones that are on the ground level dealing with the day-to-day issues. When we spoke with Dr. Hinshaw and the guidance that she and her team have given us, is that it’s more important to look at the cohorting of these individuals.”
LaGrange added that cohorts, along with additional cleaning and masks, are what she believes will be key in keeping the spread under control in schools.
LaGrange also said the government is open to adding more funding to schools as the year goes on, but that she has not received requests for more funding.
“Right now they’re feeling that they have the adequate resources that they need at this point in time,” she said.
“With all the additional funding that’s been put out there, I’m hearing that at this point in time that they’re still assessing what further needs they may require. So we are continuing to monitor on a day-to-day basis and having those conversations with those partners.”
LaGrange said in the government looked at the benefits versus the downsides when deciding what school model would be used this fall.
“In this particular case, we know that children need to socialize, they need to be in school together.
“There’s much to be gained from a mental health perspective and from an academic perspective as well.”
LaGrange said in the interview she believes that Alberta has “one of the best-funded education systems in Canada,” and that her government has provided a $120-million boost in funding for operations for the school year. Schools can also take out of $363 million in reserve funds.
While the $120 million was added in to the budget amid COVID-19, the Alberta Teachers’ Association says that boost only returns the education budget to the level it was at in 2018 because the government cut that from the 2019 budget.
“You cannot equate the last budget, the last funding formula, to the new funding formula,” LaGrange said when asked about how per-student funding is down from $10,917 in 2018 to $10,453 for 2020/2021.
“There’s only one taxpayer and at the end of the day those are the dollars available to school divisions right now.”
Alberta schools were also provided with $262 million from the federal government to deal with COVID-19-related costs.
Safety in schools and working with Alberta Health
LaGrange said Tuesday that she has not yet visited an Alberta school amid COVID-19, saying Alberta Health and school divisions are reluctant to let visitors inside.
“I would absolutely go inside a school that invited me,” she said.
“This is something that would have to be mitigated through Alberta Health and that school division. As long as everyone felt comfortable, including the parents of the children that are there.”
However, a Calgary principal has invited Hinshaw and Premier Jason Kenney to see the conditions first-hand inside his school.
LaGrange said it would be up to the school board to invite her in.
She also said that she understands the anxieties that parents and students are having, especially as numerous outbreaks have already been declared at schools in Alberta.
“When I talk to the teachers, to children, students that I know in the education system, right now they are feeling — while some are still anxious, they are feeling that things are going as well as can be expected.
“They understand the need of children to get back to school.”
LaGrange said the Education Ministry is working with the province’s chief medical officer of health on all its decisions.
“I am not a health care expert. I look to the health care experts… which, are in our province, Dr. Hinshaw and her team,” she said. “I look to them for their guidance in terms of what will make our schools safe and then act upon their solid advice.”
She added that education officials go “back and forth” with Hinshaw before making a final decision.
“For me, any decision I make is absolutely about the safety and security of our children,” LaGrange said.
“It’s a team effort, but at the end of the day, someone has to make a decision and that is my role and responsibility.”
LaGrange also addressed Health Order 33, which included details about masking in schools and also said students would not have to be distanced when seated in class. That order caused some backlash after it was signed over a weekend without notice to parents.
“The order that Dr. Hinshaw had put out was just a clarification of what she had said all along,” LaGrange said. “In fact, within a classroom setting, the cohort is the most important structure.
“The masking, the increased sanitation… all of those are layered upon each other to, again, increase our ability to mitigate transmission.”
LaGrange, when asked about recent photos and video showing crowded hallways in Alberta schools, said she believes as long as students are following the protocols, they are safe.
“I am comfortable with our children as long as they follow our health guidelines to mitigate risk and mitigate transmission,” she said. “We are doing everything we can to ensure our students are safe.”
However, she added she believes it falls under specific divisions and schools to make decisions that could help with distancing.
“We can always do better.
“Perhaps, the school needs to look at staggering their bell times, having the children come in at a certain time so there are minimal numbers in the hallways.
“It can be done and school divisions are taking this very very seriously and doing everything they can to mitigate it within their school environment.”
‘The plan is working’
LaGrange said that overall, the government, as well as Alberta Health believes that the current “plan is working” and will continue to be monitored as the school year continues.
“We have relatively low number of cases,” LaGrange said. “Right now the cases that are showing up are ones that were asymptomatic. These are individuals that did catch COVID outside of the classrooms. Alberta Health is able to contact trace and they’re doing everything they can do to contain the situation
“We will deal with cases as they arise. At this point in time, [Hinshaw] feels things are moving, progressing, as they should.
“Whether parents have chosen to keep their children at home… or whether they have sent their children to school and know that at some point in time perhaps there will be a situation where they have to be home a little bit… Parents and the school system know that education will happen. That learning will continue.”
–With files from Julia Wong, Global News