Thousands of Calgary students will be shifting to online learning for two weeks starting Monday, as the province’s COVID-19 numbers continue to soar, putting pressure on the city’s two major school boards.
Alberta Health Services said Wednesday that classes for students in grades 7 to 12 in both Calgary Board of Education and Calgary Catholic School District schools will be taking place online.
The government said school boards can request that schools be moved to online learning based on four primary criteria:
- a chronic substitute teacher shortage
- a significant number of students and staff in quarantine or isolation
- recent requests from the board for short-term shifts for schools
- substantial COVID-19 cases in the community
Dr. Deena Hinshaw said in a news release that the province has seen “a sharp rise in cases among school-aged Albertans, as well as those in other age groups.”
“While this is an operational decision, I support it and ask that parents and students continue making safe choices to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” the chief medical officer of health said.
“Social activities outside of school can easily spread the virus, so please continue following all the health measures in place.”
Education Minister Adrianna LaGrange stressed the point that this decision “is not a move directed by the chief medical officer of health,” but was made at the request of the school boards, which are dealing with operational challenges as case numbers rise.
LaGrange said the primary issue the boards were facing when they made the request late Tuesday was a shortage of substitute teachers, meaning there were challenges in making sure a teacher was in front of each class, each day. She said in one case, a board reported a shortage of 170 substitutes.
LaGrange said at this point, the boards have only asked for a two-week shift in learning, but if they request it be extended, officials would consider that based on the circumstances.
The education minister could not say what supports were being offered to students in the CBE and CCSD, but said the school boards themselves have been doing a good job at making sure their students have what they need to learn effectively from home.
As of Wednesday, there had been no requests from Edmonton school boards to shift to online learning, LaGrange said.
Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling said “nothing is ideal during a pandemic,” but he expects many teachers will appreciate the circuit breaker as it will help protect their own safety, as well as the safety of their students and their workplaces.
“Teachers want to feel safe, they want their students to feel safe and if this is the case, I always think every option is on the table and safety comes first,” he said.
“Teachers are professional and it will be hard and it will be challenging but they’ll do what they need to do to keep the learning moving forward.”
CBE board chair Marilyn Dennis said temporarily moving the students to at-home learning will “address operational concerns and support the health and well-being of CBE students, staff and the Calgary community.”
AHS said school boards can still request for entire schools to temporarily transition to online learning for operational reasons, and decisions to move a portion of a school — like one grade — can be made by districts themselves.
Speaking Wednesday afternoon, Opposition Education Critic Sarah Hoffman said the quick change throws families into chaos, and that “Jason Kenney clearly doesn’t have any idea what is happening inside of Alberta classrooms or communities.”
“I respect the decisions of these boards to keep their students, staff and families safe. But make no mistake, Jason Kenney’s weak and ineffective leadership led to this third closure of Alberta schools,” she said.
“Jason Kenney failed to give Alberta schools the resources they needed to keep classrooms safe.”
Hoffman said Kenney has failed families by not ensuring more was done to keep kids in school, and that the reasons given for moving these classes online are things the NDP has warned the government about.
“All of these problems were foreseeable months ago and Jason Kenney did nothing. My heart goes out to the families who are trying to figure out how to make this work again for the third time, or even more in some circumstances,” she said.
She reiterated the NDP’s call for the UCP to establish a learn-from-home fund to help families who find themselves in these situations.
“We want to get these Calgary kids back into school safely as soon as possible. In the meantime, we need to make sure they can keep learning and therefore we need to support their families.”
Rapid test expansion
On the weekend, the Alberta government announced it was expanding the rapid testing program piloted in two schools in Calgary in March to 300 schools across the province.
It’s expected 22,000 students and staff will be tested as part of the expansion.
On Wednesday, Alberta reported an additional 1,412 cases of COVID-19, bringing the province’s total active cases to 15,569. Officials also identified 778 cases involving variants of concern. A total of 420 people were hospitalized, with 92 of them being treated in ICUs.
On Tuesday, Hinshaw warned Albertans that with hospitalizations from COVID-19 increasing steadily, the province could reinstate more health restrictions to protect the health-care system.
Earlier this month, Premier Jason Kenney announced the province would be moving back into Step 1 of the four-step re-launch plan as infections and cases of variants of concern surged amid the third wave of the pandemic in Alberta.
— With files from Caley Ramsay, Slav Kronik, Global News