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What you need to know about COVID-19 and the return to school in Alberta: Your questions answered

Alberta is going ahead with a "near-normal" return to classes in the fall, but the prospect of returning to school in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic has raising all sorts of questions and concerns among parents, students, teachers and other school staff. CBC News wants to hear from YOU about what questions you have about the back-to-school plans and the coronavirus: we'll do our best to get you answers.

Navigating back to school in a pandemic can be tough, here's a breakdown of some of what parents should know

Children line up for the first day of classes on Tuesday, at Twelve Mile Coulee School in the northwest Calgary community of Tuscany. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

The Alberta government has established guidelines for schools and school boards across the province when it comes to the re-opening of schools in the midst of the pandemic, but each one must develop its own concrete policies and procedures. That means a patchwork of rules and regulations that can leave parents scratching their heads. 

Across the province, mask use is required for staff and students from Grade 4 to Grade 12. In Calgary's public system and within the Catholic school system, students and staff from Kindergarten on will have to cover up. Some schools might have additional space for more distancing, while others are already at capacity. 

Still, there are plenty of answers to provide, with the caveat that each parent should confirm local policies with their school. 

Will there be COVID-19 testing at schools?

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, has asked teachers and other school staff to arrange testing proactively for themselves before they return to school. 

"I am recommending that all teachers and school-based staff, even without symptoms, should be tested once before school begins in September, and regularly throughout the year. This is entirely voluntary," she said on Aug. 12.

Students line up to sanitize their hands at Eric Harvie School in northwest Calgary on the first day back to school on Tuesday. (Mike Symington/CBC)

However, she added a caveat — because there are roughly 90,000 school staff in the province, she asked other Albertans without symptoms or who haven't had close contact with a COVID-19 patient to delay their asymptomatic testing until after Sept. 1, to ensure there's enough capacity for staff to be tested. 

The Calgary Board of Education released a how-to guide on what back to school will look like. Here's a look from elementary to high school. 2:46

Hinshaw has 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.

The province's guidance for school reopening includes a screening questionnaire it says parents/guardians should use each morning to assess if a student should attend school that day.

 

You can see the screening questionnaire below.

 

What happens if a student is showing symptoms?

According to the Calgary Board of Education, if students or staff are sick with any cold, flu or COVID-19 symptoms, they must stay home and isolate for 10 days or until their symptoms are gone and they've been assessed by a health-care provider to rule out COVID-19 or other infectious diseases. Students or staff will need to call 811 for guidance or complete the province's online self-assessment to determine if testing is required.

If students are well enough to keep working during isolation, teachers are instructed to continue to provide them with work and support. If they aren't well enough to do so, schools are responsible to get them up to speed on material missed when they return to class.

What happens if a student tests positive?

The Calgary Catholic School District says principals will identify an area in their school where students can be isolated if they develop symptoms during the school day.

Students showing symptoms will be required to wear a mask, even if they're in an isolated area.

The CBE said it will also isolate students in a room that will have an "Infirmary, Do Not Use" sign posted while it is in use. 

The Calgary Board of Education released a how-to guide on what back to school will look like. (CBC)

The room will be big enough that it can be used by more than one student if needed while maintaining distancing, and after the students leave, a sign will be posted stating the room needs to be cleaned, so it can be sanitized. 

All items that child touched will be sanitized, or if they can't be sanitized (like books), will be removed from the classroom for 10 days. 

AHS said it will notify parents if their child has come into contact with a case of COVID-19 at school and it will investigate the specific situation and determine whether the school needs to be closed and teaching temporarily moved online. 

Doctors answer questions about schools reopening during the pandemic including how effective masks are in keeping schools safe from the spread of COVID-19. 6:34

What happens if a parent can't immediately pick up a sick child from school?

Parents will be asked to pick up their child within one hour, the CBE said, and if they aren't available, will be required to provide an emergency contact for student pick up.

How will bus rides work?

Yellow school buses will run, but buses will be capped at 48 passengers and students will be given assigned seats. Siblings will be seated together if they're on the same route.

If a child is showing symptoms while waiting for a bus at a bus stop and no parents are present, the CBE said that child will be assigned a seat at the front of the bus, given a mask and their parents will be asked to pick them up as soon as possible. 

The CCSD said there will be an emphasis made on ensuring students aren't yelling, singing or talking excessively on the bus, or turning around to interact with each other. 

Will class sizes stay the same? 

There are no planned class-size reductions at a provincial level. The NDP is calling for a cap on class sizes at 15, but the governing UCP says that's an impossibility and would require hiring thousands of teachers and opening thousands of new classrooms. 

Class sizes will depend on each school district and each individual school, but there is no longer any central data on class sizes across the province.

What is a cohort and how will they work?

The province's cohort model for back-to-school relies on the concept of cohorts, or a grouping of students and staff who remain together, with the intent of reducing the risk of transmission by limiting the number of people who come within two metres of one another.

"It is recommended that students be cohorted in the smallest groupings possible. We recognize that cohorts will be more manageable at the elementary level and difficult or impossible at the junior and senior high levels," the CCSD said in its school resumption plan.

What happens if there's an outbreak at a school?

An outbreak means there are two or more cases at a specific location. If that's the case, Alberta Health Services will assess the outbreak and see if it is isolated or whether it has affected a school more broadly. An outbreak will not necessarily lead to the closure of a school. 

The response will be on a case-by-case basis, according to the province.

Will school entry times be staggered? How will pick up and drop off work? 

Schools across the province will determine their own specific protocols, but maintaining physical distance where possible will be the guiding principle. 

With schools opening in about a month, questions are starting to pile up. Pediatrician and the founder and director of Kidcrew Pediatrics, Dr. Dina Kulik, answers questions about testing, the role of grandparents, and whether kids should change their clothes at school before coming home. 12:44

The CCSD says there will be a limit of one class at a time in boot rooms, and staggered entry and departure procedures will be put in place. Lockers and coat hooks won't be used, and students will be told to keep their possessions with them throughout the day.

Will extracurricular activities, like sports or band practice, still be available?

The provincial plan offers "flexibility" for schools to offer extracurricular activities that comply with current health guidelines, but specifics are a work in progress. 

Sports practice can occur, but inter-school competitions are not permitted at this time. 

The Calgary Board of Education says dance, music and theatre rehearsals can proceed, but not live performances. In addition, in-person singing, cheering, shouting or playing of wind instruments is postponed but can be done by live-stream or video.

Edmonton Public Schools says "instruction will focus on music appreciation, theory and playing percussion or string instruments."

The Calgary Senior High School Athletic Association, which includes Calgary Catholic and the CBE, announced it would postpone the start of all fall sports this September. The association says the decision will be reconsidered on or before Oct. 1.

What's the plan for physical distancing?

The provincial guidelines call for distancing when possible, but say that's not possible in many situations. Teachers have been asked to reorganize classrooms with distance in mind, create cohorts of students by class when possible, guide foot traffic in hallways and doors and avoid large gatherings like assemblies. 

When physical distancing is impossible, the province says good hygiene is key and so is "respiratory etiquette." Mask use is required province-wide for students from Grade 4 to 12, while the Calgary Board of Education and the Calgary Catholic School District say they will require masks from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

Edmonton Public Schools will offer families the opportunity to opt for online learning at four different times throughout the year. 

Experts say ventilation should be addressed to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 especially in older schools or those without classroom windows. 2:04

How will distancing be maintained at lunchtime, and at recess?

Again, the specifics will be up to each school or district. The CBE and CCSD said they will stagger lunch and recess times to reduce crowding. 

Who will sanitize school equipment, and how often? 

Students K through Grade 9 will be provided with their own supplies, the CBE said, and the board is working on development cleaning procedures for classes like phys ed where equipment is shared. 

The CCSD said it will redeploy nighttime cleaning staff to daytime, as needed on a school-by-school basis, to assist with daytime cleaning. It will deploy disinfectant to classrooms so teachers can spray down desks, and students can wipe them dry.  

What options do parents have if they don't want to send their students back?

Both CBE and CCSD are offering online learning options for families who don't feel comfortable sending their children to in-person classes.

The CBE's online learning portal, called the Hub, was open for registration until Aug. 24. It's available for Grade 1-12 students, and instruction is provided through both real-time teacher instruction, and independent student learning time. Parental support will be required, the CBE said. Students can either register full-time for the Hub, or full-time for in-person classes, for the year. 

The CBE said more than 3,000 high school students signed up for the Hub, which was intended to provide specific course information by Sept. 16.

However, due to scheduling and staffing challenges, the CBE said that information was now delayed until Sept. 21.

The CBE also said that some adjustments had to be made for Grade 3 and 4 French Immersion students registered in online learning, and that teachers would be contacted by noon on Sept. 17.

Still have back-to-school questions? Watch these Calgary experts answer some from our audience as they joined CBC Calgary's very own Shannon Scott. 58:08

The CBE said an internet connection and computer are required, and that it can't commit to being able to provide technology resources to students who request it. 

The CBE said if parents aren't interested in either the Hub or in-person classes, they have the option of home-schooling or choosing other alternatives outside of the school board. 


CBC News wants to hear from YOU about what questions you have about the back-to-school plans and the coronavirus: we'll do our best to get you answers. Please send us your questions (and any other COVID-related news tips and stories) to Calgarynewstips@cbc.ca, or on Facebook or Twitter. This story will be updated regularly as we get you the answers.

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