Student, parents say they feel abandoned as Alberta's K-12 kids return to school

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, has said a return to in-person learning is critical and necessary for students' mental wellness.

'It's a chaotic mess,' says a 12-year-old student

Students board a school bus near Cremona, Alta., on Monday as they return to school for the first time since their holiday break was extended due to surging COVID-19 cases. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Twelve-year-old Charlie Kozak wasn't feeling safe about having to be in class on Monday.

"It's a chaotic mess," Charlie said during a phone interview from his home as he prepared to return to his school in Calgary.

"I know some people in my class travelled out of country over Christmas break. Some people have done unsafe family gatherings. We're allowed to take masks off at our desks next to them [that] aren't six feet apart.

"It's unsafe."

While some parents are relieved that students in Grades K-12 are returning to classes after an extended holiday break, many say they are concerned and frustrated about unclear instructions from the Alberta government on how it plans to contain a surge in COVID-19 infections in classrooms caused by the Omicron variant.

The province had an almost 40 per cent positivity rate last week. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange has promised thousands of test kits will be delivered to students and parents over the next few days, but has left it up to schools to report and track infections.

'None of this makes any sense'

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, chief medical officer of health, has said a return to in-person learning is critical and necessary for students' mental wellness.

"We know the COVID infection has a low — but not zero — risk for children. We also know in-person learning is critically important for many kids' educational and social development and provides a sense of stability and normalcy in these challenging times," she said last week.

Charlie's mother, Dr. Stephanie Cooper, an obstetrician, said she agrees mental well-being is worsening among students, but "mental health is not just about being online or in-person."

"There's a lot of other variables that include the stress of not feeling like you have all the information."

She pointed to a promise made by LaGrange that students will go back to classes with more medical masks.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange has promised thousands of test kits and medical-grade masks will be delivered to students and parents over the next few days. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Schools have received their masks and test kits, but Edmonton Public Schools and the Alberta Teachers' Association have said there are still kids who won't get them until days after they return to classes, which could exacerbate the spread of the already highly contagious variant.

"They're going to take off their masks and eat in a classroom for the lunchtime period," Cooper said. "None of this makes any sense. Certainly, a lot of parents are left with a lot of questions as to the logistics of how this is going to happen."

"I don't have the best mental health either but I feel like COVID wasn't the thing that affected that," Charlie added.

"It was the constant fear of what if I get COVID and then someone else gets it? It [would be] my fault that I put someone in hospital because I wasn't careful enough at school, because someone didn't want to wear a mask."

Christopher Usih, chief superintendent of the Calgary Board of Education, said for students who haven't yet received medical masks, they are expected to bring their own masks to school. He also said schools will have extra masks available for students who forget theirs.

"From the onset of the pandemic, it's been our policy … that all students and staff are expected to wear masks," Usih said Friday during an interview on CBC Calgary News at 6.

Usih said that while CBE can decide to move some classrooms or a school to online learning, it will be up to the department of education whether the entire district will move online at some point in the semester.

Concern over lack of supports

Wing Li, an Edmonton-based parent and a volunteer with advocacy group Support Our Students Alberta, said she will continue tracking outbreaks in schools since the government has stopped contact tracing. 

Li said she is able to keep tabs on infections because parents forward letters to her sent by schools reporting an outbreak. 

She said she has heard from parents who are relieved their kids are returning to school because they don't have the resources to keep an eye on them and work at the same time.

"I think the narrative is sold that some of us want to shut the school down, but that's not the case at all," Li said.

"We just want safety measures so that it's not a complete disaster."

Edmonton Public Schools has written a letter to the United Conservative government saying that despite the extension to winter break, "our concerns with staffing and division operations have not changed."

Charlotte Reid, right, and her sisters Evelyn and Lynelle leave their house near Cremona to meet a school bus on Monday as they return to classes after an extended holiday break. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The school division along with the Calgary Catholic School District have said they are anticipating to once again scramble to find teachers to fill in for those who can't come in because they are sick.

"We're just even more exhausted every year that this drags on," Li said. "We know that we have to maintain normalcy for the kids when it hasn't been normal for us at all.

"Not having any support adds to that exhaustion and feeling abandoned by policy-makers."

But not all parents are worried about the return to in-person learning. Melissa Bernon has a six-year-old son who is excited to be in the classroom.

"He missed his friends," she said.

Bernon said she feels her son will be "pretty safe" with regular handwashing and sanitizing, and because he already has one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine.

As a parent, she is grateful to have a break from online learning. 

"It's been a hectic, long three weeks," she said. 

John Markin, a Calgary resident who has a son in Grade 4 at Hawkwood School, said he doesn't have safety concerns about the return to in-person learning. It's been difficult for his son, who has a disability, to learn from home.

"It's hard to home school kids, especially with special needs. [My son] doesn't want to be in front of the computer."

Markin said he is frustrated, however, by the back-and-forth changes from in-person to online learning. With other provinces like Ontario delaying in-person learning, he said he expects Alberta might switch back to virtual classrooms. But, for now, he's hoping his son can stay in the classroom. 

With files from Dave Gilson, CBC Calgary News at 6


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