EDITOR’S NOTE: With regard to the dates mentioned in this article, the Alberta government acknowledges that schools in the province have different winter break schedules. Parents and students are advised to check with their school for details.
The chair of the Edmonton Public School Board says the first time she learned Alberta’s grade 7 to 12 students would be moving to at-home learning was when Premier Jason Kenney held a news conference Tuesday afternoon to announce new measures aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 in the province.
“To be clear, school divisions were not given a heads up about this announcement from the provincial government,” Trisha Estabrooks tweeted Tuesday night. “Not one inkling.
“This is a massive change, and the Edmonton Public School Board can do it — we will be ready to welcome grade 7-12 (students) online… but a heads up would have been nice.”
The provincial government is bringing in a wide array of new public health measures as the number of COVID-19 cases in Alberta continues to rise sharply this month. For schools, the new measures mean junior high and high school students will move to at-home learning on Nov. 30. Once they return from their holiday break, students will continue to be required to learn at home until Jan. 8.
On Wednesday, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said students with disabilities who require specialized supports won’t have to move to online learning.
“What we do need is for parents to be able to talk to their school authorities — to speak with their principals and teachers — and work those details out,” she said.
Speaking with Global News Morning Edmonton on Wednesday, Estabrooks said the board of trustees paused their meeting to watch Kenney’s news conference Tuesday when they learned of the changes.
“That was the first time that the board of trustees heard about the change that was going to happen. To be clear though, I would say that from the beginning we knew that this was always a potential option. When I think back to some of the good work, the planning that administration and staff at Edmonton public were doing to get ready for this very challenging and quickly moving school year, we knew that online would have to be the backbone of any plan.
“Certainly, we were told by the minister of education, ‘Be prepared, be ready to pivot.’ We are ready to pivot but I would have liked a heads up.”
Estabrooks said it’s “absolutely the right decision” to move students online for a few weeks to take some pressure off the school system.
“The way I’m looking at it for our junior high and our high school kids, it’s really a six-week sort of circuit breaker, if you will, an opportunity to really sort of take some of that pressure off our schools.
“One of the other big pressure areas is contact tracing. Our staff have been forced to do the job of contact tracing and we have a backlog — the last time I checked — of about 200 cases that AHS hasn’t even informed us about. So that, to me, just again is another symptom of a health-care system, but also an education system, that is under incredible stress. So this absolutely is the right decision.”
She said there’s been a “sharp increase” in COVID-19 cases in the past month.
“You can see how schools truly are a reflection of what is happening in our city,” Estabrooks said. “From the beginning of November to yesterday, we had 350 cases in our schools, which is more than all of September and October combined.
“Yesterday, for example, we would have had 100 teaching positions that were unfilled because we didn’t have substitute teachers to come in and do that backfill.”
Diploma exams are now optional for the remainder of the school year.
For children in kindergarten and up to Grade 6, in-person learning will continue until students take their winter break but they will move to at-home learning from Jan. 4 to Jan. 8.
Kenney said older students will move to at-home learning soon because they pose a higher risk for coronavirus transmission. He added that COVID-19 cases in schools had put pressure on staffing and negatively impacted students’ quality of education.
“Rising cases in our workplaces and homes, driven disproportionately by the social gatherings, means that we are seeing rising cases in schools as well,” the premier said, noting, however, that there is little evidence of transmission in schools.
“We learned of these new measures this afternoon and will share more information as the details are confirmed,” a spokesperson for the Calgary Board of Education told Global News when asked for comment on the new measures.
In a statement sent to Global News on Tuesday night, the Edmonton Catholic School Division (ECSD) said it supports the decision to move students to online learning until early in the new year.
“In the past few weeks, we have seen a steady increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in all levels, including junior and senior high,” the ECSD said.
“While this increase mirrors the higher numbers of COVID-19 cases in the community, it places additional pressures on staffing to ensure the continuity of learning for all students.
“We are pleased that diploma exams will be optional for the remainder of the school year as this supports our high school students who are considering post-secondary applications and will now be less adversely affected by the impact of COVID-19.”
The ECSD added that it agrees with keeping younger students in class to better help them learn and in order to help make it easier for parents to be able to work.
“We will now redeploy some of our dedicated substitute teachers to our elementary schools for more specialized and targeted instruction,” the school board said.
“The extension of the Christmas break for students in kindergarten to Grade 12 may provide a necessary break in the transmission of COVID-19.”
On Wednesday, ECSD spokesperson Lori Nagy said one of the school board’s priorities is now to ensure all students have access to the technology and equipment needed for online learning.
“So any families that don’t have technology, we’re asking them to call the school and we are going to do whatever we can,” she said. “Most do have the technology because we have been through a similar process in March.
“I think we’re all very hopeful — not only as a school community, but as a province — that this helps to slow down the number of cases and of course prevent further spread in our schools in the community.”
A spokesperson for the Calgary Catholic School District said the school board would not be commenting on the measures Tuesday as it was still reviewing them and assessing what impact the measures will have on its schools.
The president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association issued a statement that noted teachers have expressed concern about the spike in COVID-19 cases in the province and the effect that is having on schools.
“We support the direction taken by government to move to a combination of in-school and at-home learning that will allow schooling to continue in a safer environment,” Jason Schilling said. “The association has outlined eight actions for keeping students, staff and families safe, and these are now particularly relevant for elementary schools where in-person learning continues.
“We are counting on government to monitor and assess the success of the measures introduced today as the situation continues to evolve. As the president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, I am immensely proud of my colleagues across the province as they continue to respond with creativity and deep personal commitment to meeting the needs of their students.”
Opposition Leader Rachel Notley noted that schools are seeing many COVID-19 cases and as a result, staff and students being forced to isolate. She suggested the Kenney government should have implemented the plan the NDP introduced in the summer, which called for smaller class sizes.
“Now their 11th-hour solution is to rip hundreds of thousands of teenagers out of school in the middle of their second term,” Notley said in a news conference. “We’re hearing today that no one’s actually talked to school boards, yet again.
“This government has learned nothing from the chaos that they caused in the spring.”
A Calgary doctor who spoke to Global News on Tuesday said he supports the government’s new measures with regard to schools but would have liked to have seen further commitments be made.
“We know now that teenagers transmit the virus about as well as adults but the younger kids probably don’t,” Raj Bhardwaj said.
“But you know, I would have liked to have seen the province say, ‘OK, and in the time that the schools are closed — with all this extra time — we’re going to maybe support the schools by implementing greater ventilation or different programs so that we can reduce the spread’ — or somehow funding them so that we can have smaller class sizes so that when they do go back, they’re not just jumping back into the fire, so to speak.”
With files from Caley Ramsay, Global News.