All Alberta students from kindergarten to Grade 12 will return to in-classroom learning after the Victoria Day long weekend, with one exception.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said all students enrolled at schools in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo will continue to learn at home for an additional week, with a targeted return to in-classroom learning on May 31.
LaGrange said case numbers in the RMWB, which includes Fort McMurray, have not trended downward at the same rate as they have in other regions of the province, which means “a higher likelihood of continued operational challenges in those schools.”
“I recognize that while many parents and students in this region had hoped for a return to in-person learning following the long weekend, I am very hopeful that all students, parents and staff in this area can soon benefit from a return to the classroom for the remainder of the school year.”
As a way to continue to reduce spread in school-aged Albertans, the province also announced that extracurricular sports, recreational and performance activities for children and youth will remain closed in high-transmission areas of the province for the next several weeks.
LaGrange stressed that the decision to shift to at-home learning province-wide — which started on Friday, May 7 — was made by Alberta Education, not the chief medical officer of health. The decision was made to help ease the operational pressures school divisions were facing with staff and students having to isolate due to the rising COVID-19 cases across Alberta.
LaGrange said the metrics the province is using to make decisions about student learning include COVID-19 case counts, how many staff and students in schools are having to self-isolate and the number of schools that have to shift to online learning.
LaGrange said the province has been tracking the number of cases in staff and students over the last couple of weeks. The number of staff in isolation has dropped from 12 per cent to about 2.2 per cent, she said.
“Operationally, we were struggling with having enough substitute teachers, there were some issues even with bus drivers, etc.,” LaGrange said.
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said there has been a “sharp decline” in COVID-19 cases in school-aged children in recent weeks.
In early May, Hinshaw said there was an average of 60 new cases per day for every 100,000 children and youth. Now, that figure sits at about 31 cases per 100,000, she said.
“The data since in-person learning began has shown that cases in school-aged Albertans rise and fall in line with changes in rates of community transmission,” Hinshaw said.
Hinshaw pointed out that in January, when in-person learning resumed after the holidays, there were more than 2,000 active cases of COVID-19 in Albertans aged five to 19. Six weeks later, there were just over 700 active cases in this age group.
“We saw that decline in active cases despite more than a month of in-person learning provincewide. Not coincidentally, this was a time when active cases were falling across our communities as well,” Hinshaw said.
Hinshaw said it’s also important to mitigate the negative impacts experienced by not having children learn in schools.
“Looking at that whole health of kids and the fact that overall community transmission is declining, looking at our very positive experience in January, I believe it is important for the whole health of kids — which is good for all of society — that we support in-person learning with all of those things that have been mentioned in terms of providing that safe environment in schools.”
Concerns have been raised, however, about sending students back to the same environment they’ve been learning in for the past several months.
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The president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association said Tuesday that students and staff need to be better protected from the risks associated with COVID-19.
“We are concerned that schools will reopen on May 25 using the exact same strategy that has already failed twice to keep schools safe and open,” Jason Schilling said in a statement.
“The variants of concern have changed how COVID is spread and its impacts on schools, yet the government has not changed its plan for how to protect students and to operate schools safely. Teachers are exhausted trying to mitigate spread and trying to sustain student learning while flipping back and forth between in-person and online delivery.”
Speaking on 630 CHED Mornings with Daryl McIntyre on Thursday, Schilling reiterated those concerns. He said heading back to class comes with mixed emotions for teachers.
“Ideally, they want to be at school with their students in their classrooms because that’s where the best learning is going to take place. But we still have quite a high positivity rate in terms of COVID within our province and we are putting schools and students and the folks who are working in those buildings right back into the same situation that they left just a couple of weeks ago without any further support,” Schilling said.
On Wednesday, Alberta’s positivity rate was 9.1 per cent.
Schilling worries that positive cases and close-contact situations will continue the yo-yo effect of kids going back and forth between online and in-person learning.
“You’re still going to see issues of folks having to isolate when they come to schools next week because there’s still cases in their community. We know community spread is echoed within our school spread,” Schilling continued.
“It’s been trying and people are ready to get off this COVID-coaster, if you will.”
NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said in a statement that the repeated need to stop in-person learning has been hard.
“Everyone wants schools to be open but the UCP have failed to make any changes to make schools safer. Yesterday I called on the UCP to provide additional funding to hire more staff for schools and to increase PPE and cleaning supplies. We also urged the government to open in-school COVID-19 vaccines for eligible staff and students. I fear that families will be left to deal with more isolations because the government has failed to do anything to make schools safer,” Hoffman said.
The education minister said health measures aimed to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in schools will remain in place. These measures include mask requirements, cohorts, screening for symptoms and seating arrangements.
LaGrange said more teachers, school staff and students 12 and older being eligible for vaccines will also help bring down the infections.
The province also plans to expand its use of rapid screening tests at schools to include those in Edmonton, Calgary, Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie and Lethbridge, starting next week.
To date, about 10,800 tests have been conducted in Edmonton and Calgary schools which resulted in 44 preliminary positive results, LaGrange said.
Edmonton Public students will head back to class on May 27 and board chair Trisha Estabrooks said schools will be ready to see students again. However, she warned that parents should expect cases of COVID-19 to possibly affect their kids’ school year.
“The reality really is… that we will have kids ending their school year, including students who are graduating from Grade 12, in a quarantine and isolation situation,” Estabrooks said.
“I wish I could say to parents with certainty, parents that I represent, that, ‘Yeah, your kid’s going to remain in school until the end of the school year.’ We cannot provide that certainty based on the expectation that we will continue to see cases in our schools.”
Edmonton has seen a decrease in overall case numbers in the last few weeks and Estabrooks wants to know what role having schools closed played in those numbers changing. She said school divisions across the country have asked for a detailed breakdown of where in-school transmission was happening, but have not received the information.
The EPSB will debate at their next meeting whether to send a letter to the health minister to receive that information.
“We’re not health experts, but we sure could use access to some of the metrics and some of the health data that this government has access to make this decision.”
When asked whether she supports the idea of kids going back to the classroom, Estabrooks said it’s not an easy question to answer.
“It’s tough, because again, I don’t have the data that our education minister and Dr. Hinshaw have. It’s in some ways as if we’re flying blind as we head back into school. I know how tough it is for families, in particular families of students in kindergarten to Grade 6, to have kids home. It’s really tough for child-care reasons, for learning reasons. Optimal learning happens in the classroom,” she said.
“I know not ideal to have kids learning at home. With just a month left in school, I think everybody would like to be in a situation where kids can learn in person. My concern though, as I’ve stated, is not having metrics, not knowing the data that this government used to make this decision. it’s tough to know whether it’s too soon.
“We follow the advice and recommendations of our chief medical officer of health. I really hope we are not in a situation where we have to send children back.”
Dr. Joan Robinson, a pediatric infectious diseases doctor, said while schools may not be 100 per cent safe when it comes to the possibility of acquiring a case of COVID-19 in school, the benefit of kids returning to class far outweigh the risk.
“I’m very much in favour of the children going back to school because I think that there were not many cases of COVID-19 that were acquired in schools,” she said.
“I think that most cases that were described ‘from schools’ were actually acquired in the community and I think that education is so incredibly important that if anything in the province is open, it really should be the schools.”
Tracey Kalbfleisch has students in Elk Island Public Schools and said while the back and forth between in-person and at-home learning has been an emotional roller-coaster, the teachers have done a great job.
“I find it has been good just because of how organized the teachers are and helping them with their online. There’s forever support there,” she said.
However, she said there are more benefits for the kids to be learning in the classroom.
“I just find it better for them. I think they get more learning, they need that social aspect with their friends… I just find it a lot better learning, they’re more focused and they have normality and routine,” she said.
“It’s a juggle. I just don’t find they’re as focused at home; there are so many distractions.”
On Wednesday, the province identified 908 new cases of COVID-19 from nearly 10,000 tests, putting the province’s positivity rate at about 9.1 per cent.
As of May 18, Alberta has administered more than 2.27 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and about 50.5 per cent of eligible Albertans have received one dose of vaccine.
— With files from Kirby Bourne, 630 CHED.