Costs for COVID-19 measures mounting for Calgary school boards

A school bus is seen in this undated file photograph. Global News / File

School boards in Calgary are all struggling under the weight of COVID-19 in their classrooms.

Wednesday, a city committee heard updates from the Calgary Board of Education (CBE), the Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) and FrancoSud about how those respective boards are handling the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our school boards are very much on top of this to the extent that they can be,” committee chair and Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra said. “And like (the City of Calgary), they are beholden to the province for making critical decisions at critical times.”

Read more: About 8,000 Calgary students, staff in isolation as COVID-19 pandemic rages on

All school boards have implemented things like distancing measures, increased cleaning and sanitizing, and signage for crowd management in schools.

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“The handwashing, mask-wearing, and social distancing combo is extremely simple, but also the most efficient,” Erwan Goasdoué, chair of the board and trustee with FrancoSud, told the committee Wednesday.

Goasdoué also said maintaining cohorts has made contact tracing easier for his school division.

Click to play video 'Multiple COVID-19 cases at Calgary high school pushes classes online' Multiple COVID-19 cases at Calgary high school pushes classes online
Multiple COVID-19 cases at Calgary high school pushes classes online – Nov 17, 2020

But COVID-19 cases among students are still happening, resulting in thousands of students and staff having to self-isolate this school year.

Currently, 314 CCSD staff are having to self-isolate. Numbers up to Oct. 31 show 638 CBE staff had to self-isolate. As for FrancoSud staff, 76 had to stay home as of Nov. 16.

Read more: COVID-19 case forces closure of Calgary school amid provincial staffing ‘crisis’

“We are not through the month of November and we’re looking at 5000 students and four hundred staff that have been directed into isolation,” CBE trustee Marilyn Dennis said.

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Hiring substitute teachers is causing the school boards to run budget deficits. And it’s resulting in “very, very significant” budget impacts for CCSD, board chair Mary Martin told the committee.

Click to play video 'Calgary Catholic School District adding new measures to fight COVID-19' Calgary Catholic School District adding new measures to fight COVID-19
Calgary Catholic School District adding new measures to fight COVID-19 – Nov 13, 2020

“We have actually planned as a board last spring to set aside $3 million dollars to help provide extra staffing, to support what we would need,” Martin said. “We were able to pull that back when the federal funding came in, and for Calgary Catholic that was $20 million.”

Read more: Calgary school closes due to COVID-19 staffing shortages

“We have increased our substitute teacher roster by 30 per cent, yet we still have daily gaps in our ability to fill those positions,” Dennis said, noting CBE has received about half of the expected $44.5-million in federal funding.

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“And that money is being primarily spent on hiring additional teachers to teach the hub online model.”

Read more: Calgary Board of Education forecasts $46.8M in additional costs due to COVID-19

More than 21,000 CBE students (16%), nearly 7,000 CCSD students (12.3%), and 275 FrancoSud students (7.8%) have enrolled in online learning for the school year, representing 16 per cent, 12 per cent and 8 per cent of students respectively.

According to information presented at the Nov. 10 CBE trustee meeting, the public school board is looking at a $2.4 million shortfall because of COVID-19 costs.

For both CCSD and CBE, about 80 per cent of their costs go to staffing.

“The costs of substitutes is huge,” Goasdoué said.

Read more: Calgary Catholic students won’t be writing Provincial Achievement Tests this year

And some of those costs include closing schools due to a lack of teachers.

“We have had a couple of cases in two K-9 schools where we’ve actually had to go online for a couple of grades and that forces the isolation,” the CCSD board chair said. “And the reason for that is not because there’s a huge number of people who are testing positive, it’s because we’re running out of guest teachers and where you don’t have a critical mass of guest teachers to support the school, then you have no choice but to close the door.”

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Martin said subs are “utilized in a 95 per cent rate” at CCSD currently.

Click to play video 'Parents concerned delays in COVID-19 notifications at Calgary schools putting staff and students at risk' Parents concerned delays in COVID-19 notifications at Calgary schools putting staff and students at risk
Parents concerned delays in COVID-19 notifications at Calgary schools putting staff and students at risk – Nov 3, 2020

The boards also have to shoulder the added burden of contact tracing, added cleaning measures and purchase of personal protective equipment for students and staff.

“We’ve hired an additional 240 custodial staff, so we’ve hired an additional staff person for each of our schools,” the CBE trustee told the committee. “We also had to do some contract hiring as well for cleaning.”

Read more: All Grade 10, 11 students at Nelson Mandela High School sent home due to COVID-19

Dennis said funds for additional cleaning came from the federal government.

“They are a little bit handcuffed because they have not received enough funding for all of the safety measures they’ve had to take,” Mayor Naheed Nenshi said.

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“And they are stuck at the whim of the provincial government and the Ministry of Education, in terms of what they need to do.”

Nenshi pointed to an increase in COVID-19 cases among the 10- to 19-year-old demographic in the province, saying it indicates junior and high schools being a potentially bigger challenge than elementary schools.

Schools across the province are currently in the education ministry’s “scenario 1” — in-school learning. Scenario 2 — blended learning — could see high school students learn from home and elementary school students attend in-person, but that change would have to come from the provincial government.

Read more: Adriana LaGrange defends Alberta’s COVID-19 school plans in Global News interview

“But, as it stands, the Ministry of Education hasn’t given any special instructions for junior and senior highs, and these are the sorts of things I think we have to be really smart about,” Nenshi said.

Wednesday, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said 320 schools — or about 13 per cent — across the province had active alerts or outbreaks.

“But if our goal is to keep the schools open — and I think many people share that goal — then it means we’ve got to be doing even more in the rest of society and the economy to make sure schools can stay open safely,” the mayor said.

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Calgary school boards update on COVID-19 measures