Alberta’s education minister said while difficult, the decision to shift all students to online learning for the next couple of weeks was a necessary step to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Part of a new set of restrictions announced by the premier Tuesday night includes sending all kindergarten to Grade 12 students home for online learning starting Friday. Thousands of students in higher grades in Edmonton and Calgary have already been working from home.
At-home learning is scheduled to remain in place until May 25. This applies to all students across the province, regardless if they are in a COVID-19 hot spot or not.
During a news conference Wednesday morning, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange acknowledged the difficulty this shift presents to families.
“I know this is very difficult news to hear — for many students, for many parents, for teachers and for other staff,” LaGrange said. “Over the last week or so we have been seeing an increasing number of COVID cases in the province, which is reflected within our schools.
“We had all hoped that this type of a shift was behind us. However, we must take on one more reset to stop the spike.”
She said the move was made amid ongoing difficulties with students and teachers having to isolate, a shortage of supply teachers to fill vacant positions and more school boards requesting to shift to online learning.
On Monday, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said 808 schools had active alerts or outbreaks of COVID-19, representing about 33 per cent of Alberta schools.
“The two-week reset in the schools is being driven by operational issues and much less so the public health issues,” Premier Jason Kenney said Wednesday morning.
“The department of education, based on consultations with superintendents and schools boards, believes that it will very soon become practically impossible to operate many schools with so many people in self-isolation. So they believe the prudent thing to do, in order to save the rest of the school year, is to hit the reset button for a couple of weeks.”
LaGrange reiterated that schools are safe, but stressed that the increase in COVID-19 spread in the community is reflected in schools.
“I truly hope that this is the last time that we will be in this situation,” she said. “I am confident this is a temporary shift.
“I really want all of our students and our staff to be able to close out this school year on a very strong and positive note.”
LaGrange said there are some positive points to the shift, including that the move is consistent for all students across the province. It also allows teachers and support staff in schools time to access vaccine, after they were made eligible to book appointments earlier this week.
“It will help minimize the learning loss that’s been happening due to the absences from COVID positive cases and the required quarantining that has to take place after that,” LaGrange added.
“It will also help our older students who are working to meet academic requirements for post-secondary education by minimizing their moves from in-class to quarantine.”
The education minister said school boards have been directed to focus kindergarten to Grade 6 instruction on the fundamentals: literacy and numeracy.
“We know that at-home learning is especially difficult for younger students and we do not want to overburden families during this difficult time.”
Edmonton Public School Board chair Trisha Estabrooks said while the board had not yet made a formal request to Alberta Education to shift learning online for K-6 students, it was “certainly heading in a direction where it was concerning.”
“The pressure on our system and the increasing cases that we were seeing in kindergarten to Grade 6 in the last two weeks — it again was on a trajectory where it’s not sustainable,” Estabrooks said.
While acknowledging the challenges the shift will present, Estabrooks said as both a school trustee and mother of two children in Edmonton Public Schools, the announcement also came as a relief.
“I’ve certainly heard from parents who were concerned about a number of cases that were popping up in our elementary schools and so again, as challenging as I know this decision is and as challenging as I know this will be for parents and families and kids, it is absolutely the right decision,” she said.
“Unfortunately, we’ve been here before. Our division knows how to make this pivot. Our families also know how to make this pivot. Still though, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is challenging.”
In a statement Tuesday night, the Alberta Teachers’ Association said it appreciates the aggressive action taken by the province.
“Teachers have a heavy heart and mixed emotions to see learning move online for the next three weeks. We would always prefer to be in schools working with students, but today’s decision is a prudent move to regain control over the spread of COVID in Alberta,” ATA president Jason Schilling said.
“We look forward to working with government and other stakeholders on ways to provide further support to schools when they return to in person learning on May 25. Serious efforts to contain the pandemic in Alberta communities will be essential to ensuring that students, teachers and staff can be together again safely.”
Schilling said he is relieved that teachers and school staff will have an opportunity to receive their first dose of vaccine before in-person learning resumes.
“School boards must now do their part to reduce the risk of spread by allowing all teachers who are able to work from home, to work from home. The government has stated that working from home remains mandatory unless the employer requires the employee’s physical presence to operate effectively. We expect school boards to respect this clear direction.”
LaGrange added there will continue to be exceptions made for students with disabilities to continue to learn in person as they have with previous shifts to online learning.
The new COVID-19 restrictions announced Tuesday night also mean all post-secondary students will also have to shift to online learning.
As of Thursday, there were more than 23,600 active cases of COVID-19 in Alberta. More than 670 people are in hospital with COVID-19, with 150 people in intensive care.
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