Calgary

Alberta plans for students to return to in-person classes this fall, despite jump in COVID cases

Alberta students are headed back to classrooms this fall — under what Education Minister Adriana LaGrange has repeatedly referred to as “near-normal” daily operations with health measures.

More than 750,000 students to go back to 'near-normal learning' in new school year

The province is planning for students to return to schools for in-person instruction this September. (BlurryMe/Shutterstock)

Alberta students are headed back to classrooms this fall — under what Education Minister Adriana LaGrange has repeatedly referred to as "near-normal" daily operations with health measures.

The Alberta government announced Tuesday that students will be resuming in-person classes under Scenario 1 of the three possible scenarios that were announced in June. 

"I'm very proud of the re-entry plan that we've developed. It's very comprehensive," said LaGrange.

The government's guide for school re-entry under Scenario 1 has several specific recommendations, including cohorting classes where possible, implementing social distancing techniques, staggering breaks and class times as well as drop-off and pickup times and locations, and implementing assigned seating on school buses.

Recent increase in province's COVID-19 cases

Despite an increase in cases over the past number of days, the premier said going ahead with this re-entry plan showcases the success Alberta has had in fighting the virus.

"The return of more than 750,000 students to near-normal learning in the new school year is a testament to Albertans taking personal responsibility to help keep COVID-19 infections among the lowest per capita in the western world," said Premier Jason Kenney.

The province reported 509 new cases over the past four days, and the total number of active cases currently sits at 1,193 — the highest the province has seen in more than two months. 

Government says re-entry plan is already working

LaGrange said the government is confident the re-entry plan works because they have seen it at work within the Calgary Catholic School District for weeks. 

"They ran in-person summer school and used the guidelines that were in our re-entry plan and they've been able to function very, very well," she said. 

"We know, given just a snapshot through the summer school program, that we can extrapolate that and and feel that it will work with all of our schools across the province."

Bryan Szumlas, chief superintendent of the Calgary Catholic School District, says the district's summer school has been operating under Scenario 2 rules, which are different than the planned Scenario 1. 

"I think, overall, people are going to be really pleased with the announcement from the ministry and the government that we heard today. But I also recognize that there will be many people with anxiety, anxiousness, nervousness and they may not feel comfortable in sending their children back to school," he said.

"What we're doing is we're preparing to open an online school for September. We would hope, No. 1, that the majority of our students and parents choose to go to their community school. But in the event that, you know, they're just terrified, and that's not going to happen for them, we would hope that they would consider enrolling in our online school — and more information will be coming forward about that."

At a press conference on Monday, MLA and education critic Sarah Hoffman was told by a reporter that an Alberta Education spokesperson had said summer school was a great example of the re-entry plan succeeding. But Hoffman scoffed at the comparison.

The Calgary Catholic School District is preparing its schools to welcome students back while adhering to health guidelines. (Calgary Catholic School District)

"I think said spokesperson is dreaming in Technicolor. The vast majority of kids don't go to summer school," she said. 

"Even less are going that typically would go because parents want to make sure that it's done with a safe re-entry. So saying that summer school operates the same way as September-through-June school is just not reality."

When cohorting is in place at a school, LaGrange said it will be done by class.

"Under Scenario 1, we're not asking for classes to be split. That is certainly something that school divisions will determine at the granular level," she said.

"My suspicion would be that the class of 30 students, if there was such a thing as a class of 30 students, that would mean that would be the group that would stay together."

She said that when possible, rooms will also be reorganized to promote social distancing, and there will be signs and symbols to remind and encourage students to do so.

Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, said there are outstanding questions about safety.

"If you have a look at staffing as well, as teachers can't spend the day cleaning their classrooms because they'll be busy teaching, and if we have students that are in cohorts that are expected to be socially distanced, how is that going to work in some of our classrooms where we have 30 or 40 students? And are they going to split those grades and then hire more teachers?" he said.

"Unbelievable to me that we would move forward on a plan to restart school without making sure that it is adequately funded and that everything that needs to be in place for students, teachers and staff and the broader community, for that matter, are safe."

Transitioning to Scenarios 2 and 3

LaGrange told CBC News in an interview on Monday that while the government has chosen Scenario 1, there are transition plans in place for the possibility of having to pivot to one of the other two scenarios if an outbreak makes that necessary.

"As things evolve, I think it's important to understand that the decision is being made as of the conditions today and that there there will be ongoing monitoring to ensure that the adjustments are made as needed," said Barry Litun with the Alberta College of School Superintendents.

LaGrange said they would first allow the health officers from that zone to conduct an investigation to determine what occurred and how transmission happened before deciding next steps with the impacted school division.

"Do we need to just isolate that classroom or do we need to move to the next level? If it's a larger outbreak, we would perhaps terminate in school classes for a particular school," she said.

 "Or if it was an even larger outbreak, we might [terminate in-school classes] for a zone, a school or the whole school authority or region."

LaGrange said decisions will be based on a handful of factors, including the number of cases in a community or school and the risk of ongoing transmission.

The minister said it's also expected that students and staff are routinely screened using a self-screening questionnaire to determine if they can enter the school. 

There will also be a strict stay-at-home policy for any students or staff with symptoms of COVID-19, and schools will be expected to set hand hygiene expectations when entering and exiting the school and classrooms, as well as before and after eating.

Masks will not be mandatory

LaGrange says wearing masks to school will not be mandated for either staff or students.

"From what Dr. [Deena] Hinshaw has been advising us, the data shows that particularly in young children that it is not something that is required."

Students or staff who choose to wear a mask may do so, but there is no standalone funding for this type of thing.

LaGrange said school authorities have now returned to full funding as of July 1, after being reduced by the province in March to redirect dollars toward the pandemic response.

Adriana LaGrange says she's proud of her department's 'comprehensive' re-entry plan. (Adriana LaGrange/Facebook)

She said her government has increased school division funding by $120 million across the province, and every school district has seen its funding go up for the 2020-21 school year.

In a letter to the Alberta Teachers Association dated July 14, LaGrange said school authorities have flexibility within their budgets to cover, as needed, the cost of hand sanitizers, cleaning supplies and non-medical masks for students and staff.

"School authorities should have a number of masks on hand for staff dealing with students who may be infected until their parents/guardians come pick them up," she wrote to the ATA. "Please note that parents/guardians can choose to have their children wear masks that they provide themselves, as can school staff."

She also said teachers are not expected to "act as custodial staff," but said they are expected to take responsible care to protect themselves and others in accordance with the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

'Tremendous' stakeholder engagement

Litun said one thing that can't be overemphasized is the collaboration between school divisions and educational partners on this re-entry plan.

"These plans are not being dropped on anyone. There's been a tremendous input, and the plans do provide guidance that there is a clear trust in individual school boards and their divisions to implement the plans to meet their needs."

And he said that school boards have been given the authority and the autonomy to do so.

"I think that is key because Alberta is a very large province and things will not be exactly the same in one area or the other, and things will not evolve the same," he said.

"And so there is an ability to adjust as we move forward to ensure the safety for students and staff."

Tamara Rose is the mother of a seven-year-old going into Grade 2. She's also immunocompromised.

"They had good results [in summer school] but now we're moving into full-on school, and instead of doing Scenario 2, are blowing right into Scenario 1, which seems a little reckless," she said. 

"That is a huge, huge worry for me," she said.

 "I usually spend most of my year sick because I either pick it up from somewhere at work or I pick it up from my kid. And since we've been home, I haven't been sick at all, which has been amazing. But any parent that has kids knows that you're going to get something from your child when they come home from school.

"So this actually is a huge concern for me … I really truly do not want to be picking this up from my child."

COVID-19 environmental upgrades

In May, LaGrange announced an additional $250-million maintenance stimulus for school divisions as a part of the province's $10-billion infrastructure spending announced in the Alberta Recovery Plan.

She said school divisions have targeted $15 million of that money toward climate-related environmental upgrades.

"We're looking at enhanced hygiene, hands-free sinks, automatic flush toilet, no touch soap and paper dispensers, automatic door openers, water bottle filling stations to replace water fountains," she said. 

"And numerous other things that school divisions have found that will enhance their ability to help students social distance as well as with the hygiene side of COVID prevention."

Further, LaGrange said school reserves are sitting at about $363 million across 61 school divisions, and there is the opportunity for schools to utilize their reserves to meet their priorities. 

"And also to address some of the needs required for COVID, if they feel that they need additional support or resources," she said.

Joanne Pitman, superintendent of school improvement for the Calgary Board of Education, said they're pleased to welcome students back despite knowing there's continued work to be done.

"We know that in some of our schools that we are not able to achieve a full two meters between every desk and to be able to support students ... certainly there will be challenges that we're going to need to assess on an ongoing basis and we may need to make changes in specific classrooms based on those needs."

Pitman said the CBE is working with limited funds to redesignate money toward improving safety. 

Quarterly diploma exams

Some schools, including several in the Edmonton Public School Board and Edmonton Catholic School District, have chosen to change their school calendars to quarterly schedules. LaGrange said there will also be flexibility when it comes to diploma examinations.

"In the past, the full set of exams were available to be written in January and May, and now they will be available November, January, April and May," she said. "Prior to this, November and April were a limited number of the exams." 

Students will also be able to rewrite any exams in the subsequent quarters.

An online re-entry toolkit has been prepared by the province for parents and students to help them understand what to expect. The toolkit includes videos explaining some of the health measures, a guide for parents, the self-screening questionnaire and frequently asked questions.

More on Scenario 1 guidelines

  • Cohorting — Where possible, students should be cohorted by class, with the size of the cohort dependent on the physical space of the classroom.

  • Physical distancing — Where two metres is not possible between desks, students should be arranged so they do not face each other, for example, seated in rows rather than in small groups or semi-circles. When two metres is not possible, especially if circumstances require close contact for longer that 15 minutes, teachers, staff and students may choose to wear non-medical face masks.

  • Pickup/drop-off — The guide recommends staggering drop-off and pickup times and locations or using other ways to limit contact between staff, parents and students as much as possible. 

  • Transportation — Students should be assigned seats, and a record of the seating plan should be kept to assist with contact tracing if a student contracts COVID-19. Students who live in the same household should be seated together. Field trips and activities requiring group transportation should be postponed.

  • Food and dining — Stagger lunch and snack breaks to maintain physical distancing. No activities that involve the sharing of food should occur. For classroom meals or snacks, no self-serve or family-style meals. Schools should switch to pre-packaged meals or meals served by designated staff. Food provided by the family should be stored with the student's belongings.

About the Author

Lucie Edwardson

Journalist

Lucie Edwardson is a reporter with CBC Calgary, currently focused on bringing you stories related to education in Alberta. In 2018 she headed a pop-up bureau in Lethbridge, Alta,. Her experience includes newspaper, online, TV and radio. Follow her on Twitter @LucieEdwardson

With files from Janet French

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