How does back-to-school work in a pandemic? Alberta education minister, chief health officer answer Qs

Alberta is going ahead with a "near-normal" return to classes in the fall, but the prospect of back-to-school in the midst of a pandemic has some parents, teachers and other school staff, and students concerned. 

From school buses to runny noses, the Alberta government shared some answers to what to expect

Dr. Deena Hinshaw has said that the province is looking at new evidence regarding masks, adding that students or school staff can choose to wear masks if they want. (Halfpoint/Shutterstock)

Alberta is going ahead with a "near-normal" return to classes in the fall, but the prospect of back-to-school in the midst of a pandemic has some parents, teachers and other school staff, and students concerned. 

On Tuesday, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange and Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, sat down to answer some questions from the public in a brief Facebook live. 

Here are some of the answers they shared. 

What happens if a student or staff member tests positive? 

Hinshaw began the Q&A by addressing that a student has already tested positive for COVID-19 while attending Catholic summer school in Calgary.

"There will be some exposures at school," Hinshaw said. "That's not something that's going to be possible to avoid once we have in-person classes. What's important though is as soon as that person was identified, immediately public health was in contact with the school and identified who the close contacts were.

"There's an opportunity then to stop any further spread and observe those close contacts for 14 days."

Hinshaw said it's important to remember that a return to school is part of ensuring students' overall health, not just in relation to the pandemic. 

"COVID-19 and keeping students and staff safe from COVID-19 is one aspect of health, it's not the only aspect ... We know that the Canadian Paediatric Society has said that return to school in person is a critical element of health," she said, referring to social connections and other benefits children receive at school. 

Hinshaw said the province is also working to reduce the wait times for COVID-19 tests, so results can be obtained quicker in the fall.

How are cohorts expected to work? 

A key part of the province's return to school plan is the concept of classroom cohorts, which Hinshaw said allows people to start interacting with those outside of their immediate household.

"The concept of cohort is that you're keeping the number of people you spend time with — where you may not always be able to maintain that two metres of distance — that you keep that number relatively small," she said, adding the province's concept of cohorts is up to 15 people outside a person's household. 

But, she said families with immunocompromised members may want to think about how many people they interact with, and aim for contact with a smaller number of people that seems safe to them.

"In a school context the cohort is really the classroom. We also have daycare cohorts, and sports team and performance cohorts, with the idea being you try to limit that total number of people you're with," she said. 

She also said the cohorting concept includes those sitting two rows ahead and two rows behind students on school buses, which will have assigned seating. 

The education minister and chief medical officer of health did not elaborate on how a 15-person cohort size will be maintained without capping class sizes. 

If a teacher or student contracts COVID-19, does their entire class or cohort need to quarantine? 

Hinshaw said only close contacts of someone who tests positive will be required to quarantine, and that it will depend on each individual circumstance.

For example, was a teacher teaching from behind a plexiglass barrier, two metres away from students' desks? Or did they come within two metres of a student to hand them a graded paper? Those circumstances will determine who will be required to quarantine, she said.

What funding will be allocated for safety measures? 

"We do have dollars being allocated to schools," LaGrange said.

The government has increased school division funding by $120 million across the province, and $15 million from maintenance stimulus will go toward environmental upgrades like touchless sinks, she said. 

Why not cap class sizes, or mandate masks? 

When asked about capping class sizes, LaGrange suggested the asker was referring to the NDP's alternative plan for school relaunch, that would see maximum 15-person classrooms, and additional support and custodial staff hired.

That plan is a "non-plan" and "just not practical," LaGrange said.

Hinshaw added that the province is looking at new evidence regarding masks, and wearing masks in schools.

Alberta's plan to have students back in classrooms during the pandemic this fall has some worried the province hasn't focused enough on safety measures and could be putting children, teachers and their families at risk of getting COVID-19. 2:06

She said students or school staff can choose to wear masks if they want. 

She also said that physical distance is the primary safety recommendation, which the government acknowledges can be hard to maintain among younger children, which is why it has gone with the cohort model.

Is it safe to visit elderly relatives once students return to school?

One questioner raised concerns over whether she could still visit her parents, who are seniors, once her son returns to class.

That decision will be a personal one based on risk tolerance and risk factors, Hinshaw said. 

"I would say that as kids start going back to school, some families may wish to perhaps pause visits with older family members for the first while to get a sense of how things are going."

Will a child be sent home if they have a runny nose or cough?

Hinshaw said if children have underlying conditions like allergies or asthma, they'll be asked to go for a COVID-19 test before attending classes. 

Then, if the test is negative, they'll be allowed to continue attending classes unless their symptoms change in some way, at which point they'll need to be tested again.

Hinshaw said it will be a parent's responsibility to assess their child's health each morning. 

Can school boards offer their own blend of safety measures?

While the province has determined that schools will be returning to classes under a Scenario 1 model — a full return to in-person classes — individual school divisions will not be able to offer a blend of models with either Scenario 2 or 3, LaGrange said, as that will be determined at the government level.

However, LaGrange said school divisions can create modifications for students with underlying conditions or to cater to specific family situations. 

Are in-person classes safe?

One thing both LaGrange and Hinshaw reiterated, is that they feel safe for their children and, in LaGrange's case, grandchildren, to return to school in person in the fall. 

"There's always an element of uncertainty and nervousness as we prepare for new experiences," Hinshaw said. 

"I'm confident that this is a plan that will be safe not just for my kids but for all of our kids."

But Hinshaw said parents can also consider alternative options, like a blended homeschool model.

"While I believe this is the right thing to do for our kids in general, each individual family needs to consider their own situation and to make the right decision for them," she said. 


  • An earlier version of this story used the phrase "private schools" when discussing blended homeschooling options. In fact, blended homeschooling is available through both the public and private systems.
    Jul 31, 2020 12:51 PM MT

With files from Sarah Rieger


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