As Alberta struggles to keep the number of COVID-19 cases from skyrocketing out of control, Edmonton Public Schools and Edmonton Catholic Schools announced Tuesday that many of their students will be moving to online learning as a safety precaution.
Students in grades 7 to 12 who currently attend classes in person will shift to online learning for two weeks beginning Thursday.
“This is a pretty serious decision,” EPSB chair Trisha Estabrooks acknowledged at a news conference.
“When we look at the numbers, they really are trending in the wrong direction.”
Edmonton Public Schools’ superintendent Darrel Robertson said the request to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange to move to online learning was made by the EBSB and ECSD on Monday and that he appreciates the ministry’s rapid response.
He said the request was prompted by a sharp uptick in cases linked to schools, the resulting quarantining required from thousands of staff and students and a growing supply teacher shortage as the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies.
“Our ideal is always kids being face-to-face learning in a classroom,” Robertson said. “It’s out of both caution and operational challenges that we’ve made this request.
“I’ve been watching very carefully… the total number of cases has been increasing steadily.”
As of Sunday, Robertson said 112 COVID-19 cases were linked to EPSB schools and that 2,860 students and 342 staff were in quarantine. He added those numbers have again increased significantly in the past two days.
Robertson added that students in kindergarten to Grade 6 are not being required to move to online learning because the school board realized that “causes a significant disruption to our community.”
He noted that many parents rely on schools to be operational for their younger children and added that with in-person learning being suspended for older students, some staff may be able to help ensure adequate staffing remains in place for younger students.
Estabrooks said school board officials will continue to closely monitor Alberta’s COVID-19 data over the next two weeks and that the EPSB is hoping to avoid what she called the “COVID-coaster” of moving students back and forth between in-person learning and online learning.
In a statement, ECSD board chair Sandra Palazzo cited the same reasons as EPSB for requesting a temporary suspension of in-person learning for students in grades 7 to 12.
“The safety and well-being of all students and staff continues to be our top priority,” she said. “As we implement this temporary shift in learning, we are committed to maintaining a strong and consistent learning environment for all students.
“We are hopeful that with the expanded vaccination process and this circuit-breaker, we will be able to return to in-person learning for the remainder of the school year.”
In a statement issued to Global News, LaGrange said the safety of students and staff at schools continues to be her top priority.
“I understand this is difficult news to many students, parents and teachers, as in-classroom learning has significant benefits,” she said. “However due to operational concerns, this temporary shift is necessary to ensure learning can continue.
“I want to give my sincere gratitude to teachers and administrators for their continued dedication to Alberta’s students throughout the pandemic.”
LaGrange said the criteria she looks for when deciding whether to approve a school board’s request to shift to online learning is if its schools face a “chronic substitute teacher shortage,” if a significant number of staff and students are forced to self-isolate, if there have been “recent requests from the board for short-term shifts for a number of their schools” an if there are a “substantial” number of COVID-19 cases in the community.
NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said the move throws “families into chaos.”
“These school closures are yet another appalling failure by (Premier) Jason Kenney and the UCP. ”
Hoffman questioned why earlier in the day, LaGrange spoke in the legislature of how proud she was that schools were being able to stay open during the pandemic when it was “imminent” that more students would be moving to online learning.
She also questioned why Kenney did not mention the development in a news conference about the COVID-19 situation on Tuesday afternoon.
Hoffman said she would like the Alberta government to reduce class sizes, do a better job of physically spreading out students, bring “widespread rapid testing to schools” and provide a learn-from-home fund to support families with students.
Tuesday’s development comes less than a week after the Calgary Board of Education and the Calgary Catholic School District announced their junior high and high school students would move to online learning.
Robertson said a letter was sent to parents earlier in the day informing them of the shift to online learning and that the EPSB also communicated the decision via a website parents use. He added that while in-person learning is being suspended, schools will remain open so that students who don’t have the equipment to move to online learning can acquire it or if they have questions.
When asked why more notice was not given, Robertson said the speed at which the situation is evolving is getting more intense by the day.
“We thought that waiting until Monday was going to be really challenging given our staff shortages,” he said.
The EPSB also announced Tuesday that in-person learning for students of all grades at Kenilworth School was shifting to online learning immediately “after three positive cases of COVID-19 were recently reported at the school.”
“This transition was done with approval from Alberta Education due to the number of school staff and students who are in quarantine,” the school board said.
“There are approximately 86 students and 19 staff members from Kenilworth School in quarantine due to potential close contact with a positive case.”
Watch below: Some recent videos about the COVID-19 situation in Alberta.