Alberta Distance Learning Centre chooses to close a year early over budget concerns
'We honestly just couldn't figure out how we could run the second year on $7 million'
The Alberta Distance Learning Centre (ADLC) will be defunded and end its programming at the end of this school year.
Back in March, it was announced the centre would be defunded and phased out by the province over the next two school years.
But Alberta Education said Pembina Hills School Division, which runs the centre, has volunteered to do a one-year transition, instead of the two-year transition offered by the government.
In an emailed statement, Colin Aitchison, press secretary for the education minister, said all centre funding will remain in the education system.
"The $14 million in funding for ADLC will be redirected to school authorities who are either currently offering distance learning options or who want to start offering these programs, in the 2021-22 school year," he said. "Generally, these school authorities offer both individual courses and full course loads."
'We're going to have some difficulty'
David Garbutt, superintendent of Pembina Hills School Division, said after the two-year transition was presented to the school board, he crunched some numbers.
"We honestly just couldn't figure out how we could run the second year on $7 million," he said.
"I believe we're going to have some difficulty meeting all the needs with $14 million this year — given where we're at with the COVID pandemic."
Alberta Distance Learning Centre resources and courses are free to school jurisdictions across the province to fill gaps when kids can't complete their timetables.
"We serve schools so when they have a student who — if it's a high school student — can't get Physics 30 because of a timetable conflict, they can reach out to us, and our teachers would teach at a distance the Physics 30," said Garbutt.
"That's important, particularly to small, rural jurisdictions that don't have their own means for providing that service."
All students will still have access to distance learning
When this school year ends, Garbutt said, school districts without their own distance learning programs will have to pay another board to use that service.
"If a student's home board does not offer distance learning options, they will be able to take these courses through another school division," said Aitchison. "Every single student will still have access to distance learning."
He said dozens of Alberta school boards are already offering distance learning programming.
"With higher completion rates than ADLC," Aichison noted.
He said Alberta Education is confident the transition will happen with minimum disruption to students.
Staff in limbo
But Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teacher's Association, said it will be hard on students who have come to rely on the service — and the teachers who support it.
"They have 79 teachers who worked there as well as 34 support staff to assist teachers and to support students in their work, so that's a big impact on those teachers as well," he said.
Schilling said the association is working with the teachers who are involved with the distance learning centre and the school division on plans for how they transition from the ADLC role back in to the regular school system.
"That's problematic though because ADLC has several staff who work [in different places] across the province," he said.
"In order to maintain their jobs, they might have to move back to Edmonton — but they might not be able to do that. This decision is going to directly affect a handful of teachers because they might have to resign from their position … and that is something that I don't think anybody would want, to be put in that position during a pandemic."
Garbutt said seeing the program end is difficult.
"I would have been in favour of continuing with ADLC because we serve all jurisdictions in the province. They've all used us at some point, whether that's our teachers instructing their students or them using our courses," he said.
"But the bottom line was that Alberta Education went out and spoke to the other superintendents in the province and they did not support the continuation of funding ADLC."
Full-time online school sees enrolment boost
Garbutt said Pembina Hills will continue to offer its full-time online school program, Vista Virtual, after the centre shuts down.
He said the pandemic has led to increased interest in that option.
"Our phone is ringing off the hook," said Garbutt.
"I spend much of my day answering and fielding calls from parents from across the province who don't want to send their kids back to their community school yet for fear of the pandemic, so we're enrolling them at Vista Virtual School."
He said Vista Virtual had 10,000 students in the 2018-19 school year, followed by 14,000 this past school year.
"And due to the pandemic, now we think next school year we're going to be well, well above that," he said.