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Physical distancing, extreme levels of fatigue are concerns for Alberta teachers, survey suggests

With the province's school relaunch strategy now weeks underway, the Alberta Teachers' Association released a survey Friday outlining how teachers and school leaders feel about the handling of the pandemic in schools.

Survey also indicates 84% do not receive confirmation of COVID-19 screening

The Alberta Teachers' Association released a survey Friday that involved 1,600 teachers across the province, collecting their views on how physical distancing, cohorts and other topics have been handled in schools so far. (LM Otero/Associated Press)

With the province's school relaunch strategy now weeks underway, the Alberta Teachers' Association released a survey Friday outlining how teachers and school leaders feel about how the pandemic has been handled in schools.

Some of the survey results point to successes. 

For example, mask wearing in schools when interacting with others has seen a high compliance rate — more than 86 per cent — in classrooms and hallways, with some challenges among various grade levels, according to the survey.

However, the survey suggests other areas have emerged as being of particular concern to teachers and school leaders.

Physical distancing and cohorts

Half of those surveyed said they "never," "rarely" or "occasionally" observe physical distancing in classrooms, hallways and school grounds.

"We're still seeing large class sizes across the province, and we're still hearing from teachers who are having their class sizes grow as school boards are working out the online versus in-class teaching situation," said ATA president Jason Schilling. "That's problematic because we have classes [of 30 or 40 students]."

Concerns around physical distancing were echoed by a Lester B. Pearson High School teacher on Sept. 17, whom CBC News agreed not to name because he fears professional retribution.

"In the first period class that a kid might have 35 kids in there, and then leave the class and they go to period No. 2 with an entirely different group of 35 kids. They then go for lunch, which is structured as it can be, but it's absolute chaos," he told CBC News earlier this week.

"Then they will go to Period 3 with an entirely different group of 35 kids, and then they'll go to Period 4 with yet another entirely different group of 35 kids."

Physical distancing has been a challenge at Sir Winston Churchill High School, as this photo sent by a student demonstrates. (Name withheld by request.)

Alberta schools also rely on the concept of cohorts — groups of students and staff who remain together throughout the school day — to help reduce the risk of transmission. The ATA survey suggests 18 per cent of respondents believe cohorts would be effective in this regard.

"Well, that's another one that is sort of uneven across the province in terms of how effective the cohorting is working," Schilling said. "They can be cohorted during the course of the day in the school, but during lunch or after school they break those cohorts."

On Friday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, announced that Alberta had identified its first likely case of COVID-19 transmission within a school at Edmonton's Waverley School.

Hinshaw stressed that such an event was expected, adding that Waverley School did nothing wrong and that students and staff should not be blamed. 

Dr. Deena Hinshaw cautions against shaming in schools

8 months ago
1:03
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, warned against shaming students and staff of schools experiencing outbreaks, cautioning that it could discourage others from getting tested in the future. 1:03

COVID-19 screening checklists

As part of the province's guidance for school reopening, it is each parent or guardian's responsibility to complete a screening questionnaire each morning to assess if a student should attend school that day.

According to the ATA, 84 per cent of survey respondents don't receive daily confirmation that the checklist has been completed before students enter their classrooms. 

"It's something that I think that we need to have a conversation with the government, to see if there are ways that we can add more rigour to this process so that it's not so uneven across the province," Schilling said.

Forty-five per cent of respondents called this screening tool "ineffective" and 30 per said said they were "unsure" if it would reduce the transmission of COVID-19 in schools.

Anxiety, stress and fatigue

Schilling said the number of survey respondents who said they were experiencing high levels of anxiety, stress and fatigue amidst the return to classes was concerning.

Ninety-four per cent of teachers and school leaders reported being fatigued by the end of the day, while 95 per cent reported high levels of stress and 81 per cent reporting feelings of anxiety.

"It's a high level of stress very early in the school year," Schilling said. "There's a lot of pressure to be responsible for the health of all their students in schools, as well as for themselves.

"It's a lot right now for teachers to deal with, because we're in a pandemic and we're trying to make school as great as it can be for every student … I'm concerned about the sustainability of that in the future and the effect it could have in education in a couple weeks, a couple months from now."

Routes forward

Speaking Friday, Hinshaw said transmission within schools is "not unexpected and is not a cause for alarm."

Across the province as of Friday morning, Hinshaw said there have been 78 instances of someone with COVID-19 attending school while infectious. Currently, 57 of the 2,415 schools in Alberta have reported an infectious case that attended the school.

To date, the episode at Edmonton's Waverley School is the only time when it seems that transmission likely happened in the school, Hinshaw said.

"Managing transmission in schools is part of learning to live with COVID-19, and the reason we have aggressive public health measures in place," Hinshaw said. "Identifying in-school transmission potential quickly and taking action is crucial to limiting the spread and keeping schools safe."

The ATA survey used a random stratified sample of 1,600 Alberta teachers across the province in combination with a longitudinal sample and chain referral mechanism. 

A sample of this size would carry a comparable margin of error of plus or minus 2½ percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

With files from Lucie Edwardson

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