The Black Gold School Division, which includes 32 schools in central Alberta, asked the province to switch all its Grade 7-12 schools to online learning because of COVID-19 cases and the ripple effect on staff and students.
However, just one school was given the green light to switch over: Thorsby Junior/Senior High School. That school will be moving to at-home learning from April 26 until May 7, the division said. Students will be back in the school on May 10.
“We had a number of cases in some of our schools,” Supt. Bill Romanchuk told Global News on Monday.
“We felt that the safety of our students and our teachers required us to help move those students online.
“We also have a chronic shortage of subs. Friday, for example, we had 17 spots that did not have sub coverage. Today, for example, we have 13 absences that aren’t being covered by subs,” Romanchuk said.
“We do have about 70 subs that are out out covering positions, but we don’t have enough.”
The division was trying to be preventative, rather than reactive, Romanchuk said.
Several Alberta school boards have moved to online learning in light of rising case numbers, including public and Catholic divisions in both Calgary and Edmonton.
Alberta Education said Black Gold School Division didn’t meet the province’s requirements to shift the entire division to at-home learning.
“According to data provided by the board to Alberta Education, 41 per cent of their schools that offer grades 7-12 did not have any COVID-19 cases nor did they have any students or staff quarantining,” said ministry spokesperson Nicole Sparrow.
In a statement, she explained school boards experiencing operational challenges can request a temporary shift to at-home learning and Alberta Education evaluates the request based on four 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 a number of their schools
- Substantial COVID-19 cases in the community
“As in-person learning has many benefits, the province is committed to safely continuing in-person learning for the largest number of students possible,” Sparrow said.
“Alberta Education worked collaboratively with Black Gold School Division to approve the temporary transition of one of their schools to at-home learning for two weeks.
“We will continue to work with the school division and monitor the situation closely.
“The safety of students and staff is the province’s No. 1 priority, and we are ready to make changes when necessary, based on the advice of the chief medical officer of health.”
According to Romanchuk, Thorsby Junior/Senior High School had over 50 per cent of its staff that had been either isolating or in quarantine.
“We have some schools that have zero staff and students being affected. We have other schools where we have possibly up to a third of students being impacted and not at school right now because they either have a case or they were a close contact,” he explained.
Romanchuk said he was aware the whole division didn’t meet the province’s criteria for at-home learning. He said Black Gold School Division will keep monitoring daily cases and make at-home learning requests on a school-by-school basis, if necessary.
“We’re doing the best we can with our coverage, but it’s really tough on our staff and our students.”
He said, with a shortage of substitute teachers, regular teachers have to default to “internal coverage,” meaning those teachers are feeling additional stress, not getting proper breaks and not cohorting the way they should be.
“Our staff is fantastic,” Romanchuk said.
“They’ve been troopers through this entire process. It’s been over a year now and the way they have risen to the challenge is very, very impressive. But they’re getting really, really tired and we can’t blame them.”
Black Gold School Division includes the municipalities of Beaumont, Calmar, Devon, Leduc, Leduc County, Thorsby and Warburg.
It serves approximately 11,500 students, more than 705 full-time teachers and about 525 other educational and support staff.