Rapid tests for elementary school outbreaks
Alberta’s education minister announced Wednesday that rapid, at-home COVID-19 tests are available to elementary schools named under the outbreak list.
Adriana LaGrange said the program is “optional, free and starts immediately.”
Schools under outbreak status will give 10 rapid tests to students to take home and test twice weekly for five weeks.
LaGrange said the rapid tests provide results in about 20 minutes “to quickly identify people without symptoms who may have COVID-19.”
She added the initial focus of the program will be on schools with outbreak status.
“The benefits of in-person learning, whenever possible, has been evident these last months,” said Wilco Tymensen, president of the College of Alberta School Superintendents.
This is “one more way schools are working to keep students and staff safe.”
Diploma exams worth 10%
LaGrange said this year, the weight of Grade 12 diploma exams will be dropped to 10 per cent.
She said this will give high school students the experience of writing an important exam while acknowledging the additional stress they’re under in a pandemic year.
The change does not apply to provincial achievement tests, she added.
LaGrange and the minister of advanced education sent a letter to post-secondary schools advising them of the adjustment.
Tymensen said lowering the weight of diploma exams is “another critical way to take pressure off our students.”
“Mental health has been top of mind… we need to continue to support our youth.”
Since Sept. 1, 2015, diploma exams have been worth 30 per cent of a student’s final mark.
They were optional in 2020 due to the pandemic.
$45M to help students catch up
The education minister also explained how the $45 million in additional supports will be distributed for school authorities to help students catch up from “pandemic-caused learning disruptions.”
The money will be administered on a per-student basis — $490 per student – for numeracy or literacy supports, LaGrange explained. If a student required support for both numeracy and literacy, the school authority would receive $980 for that student.
School officials can then determine how best to use the money “above and beyond classroom learning,” she added.
That could include increasing the intensity of programming for students, hiring additional staff, increasing targeted parent communication programs or ensuring staff have the necessary supports and tools to help students.
LaGrange said the financial support will first be directed to students in grades 2 and 3 this fall.
She said about 38,000 students will receive funding for literacy interventions and about 25,000 for numeracy interventions.
Then, Grade 1 students will see support in February 2022, once assessments are done in the new year.
The education minister said these grades were identified by the “College of Alberta School Superintendents and others in education” as being the most impacted by the pandemic.
“It is crucial to address learning challenges in the early years of a student’s development.”
“This funding, as well as adjusting the weight of diploma exams, as well as providing rapid tests, are welcome supports,” said Lorrie Jess, president of the Alberta School Boards Association.
She said school boards have been receiving constant feedback from schools about the challenges the pandemic has presented, including students having less access to resources and supports, isolation requirements, staffing issues, mental health concerns as well as the shifts between in-person and online learning.
Jess is pleased school boards will have the flexibility to use the funds as they see best.
She said having rapid tests “will help ensure support for young students who can’t be vaccinated.”
“Boards will continue to make decisions with the safety of students, staff and the community at the forefront.”
In May, the province announced $45 million for schools to help young students struggling with reading and math amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
At that time, Premier Jason Kenney and LaGrange said the funding would be available to offer “intensive interventions” for students in Grades 1-3 who are identified by school authorities as needing more help.
Research done by the University of Alberta found that students in those grades have been most negatively impacted by school closures and interruptions, Kenney said on May 28.
Some students were shown to be eight to 12 months behind their normal grade level in literacy and numeracy learning.
That same research showed schools that were able to intervene with those students quickly, were able to help 80 per cent of struggling students catch up to the proper grade level.
School authorities were asked to assess students as they returned to learning in the fall, identify those who may need additional supports and then apply to Alberta Education for the funding.
The Opposition says the UCP government’s approach is too little too late.
“Education Minister Adriana LaGrange announced that the UCP government will finally be making funds available for schools that they already announced back in May,” NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said in a statement.
“The $45 million being addressed today is less than 10 per cent of the $616 million they underspent last year. In the scope of the two years students and staff have been dealing with this government’s mishandling of the pandemic, it’s a drop in the bucket.
“This minister’s approach to supporting students during the pandemic has always been behind, always been the bare minimum — which she seems dragged to step up to do — and it has resulted in school closures and chaos for classrooms.”
Hoffman said the government’s plan doesn’t address learning, nor does it keep classrooms safe.
“This government should be focusing on the safety of classrooms, and that includes the mental health and well-being of students while we still deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Hoffman said reducing the weight of diploma exams does nothing.
“To ensure the well-being of students’ mental health, the government should cancel mandatory provincial achievement tests and diploma exams for students during the remainder of the pandemic.”