LaGrange says NDP's alternative school re-entry plan attempts to 'discredit' Hinshaw
'Let her speak completely freely' says education critic Sarah Hoffman
Alberta's education minister says the Official Opposition's alternative school relaunch plan is trying to "discredit" the province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw and the "excellent medical advice" she is giving the government.
Last week the NDP released 15 recommendations for an alternative relaunch plan. Those recommendations include a province-wide cap of 15 students per classroom, hiring the necessary staff to accomplish that, hiring additional custodial staff and rehiring more than 20,000 educational support staff laid off at the outset of the pandemic.
The plan was released days after Education Minister Adriana LaGrange and Premier Jason Kenney announced students would be back to school under "near-normal" circumstances in the fall with no classroom caps and no mandatory masks, but other health guidelines in place including social distancing when possible and cohorting classes.
The plan does not include any specific or targeted COVID-19 funding.
The NDP said implementing all of their recommendations would cost $1 billion.
But LaGrange said that math doesn't add up.
"The numbers that they were putting out there grossly underestimated costs," she said. "It was closer to $3.9 billion, which is roughly half of what we spent in total for all of education for a whole year."
LaGrange said the Opposition calling Hinshaw 's advice into question is concerning.
The education critic, however, said advice would be better received if Hinshaw was allowed to present her thoughts publicly — without having to go through government ministers first.
"I'd say the biggest thing that discredits her is [the government] not actually stepping up to the funding to implement her recommendations," Sarah Hoffman said.
"Let her speak completely freely to the public about all of her recommendations and what she thinks is in everyone's best interest in terms of public health and safety."
Hoffman said she believes we have a premier who's encouraging people to pretend things are normal.
"And they aren't right now. But what would help things feel safer and more stable is if he took this seriously. If he put the right investments in place and made sure we had the staff and the space to protect one another."
When it was time to decide which of three scenarios the province would move ahead with in the fall, LaGrange said the decision to go with Scenario 1 was made jointly with Hinshaw.
"It is the only one that is an approved plan by Hinshaw and the medical experts as well as all of the education partners," LaGrange said.
"Hinshaw and her team really were essential in the public health guidelines that were developed."
When a summer school student at St. Francis High School was identified this week as having tested positive for COVID-19, and the student, teacher and all class members were instructed to quarantine for 14 days — LaGrange said she saw the plan come into action.
"I know the Calgary Catholic School District is very confident even having had this scenario happen within their school division," she said. "I think it's actually given them even more confidence in the plan because they are prepared. The worst thing is to not be prepared. And so we're very much prepared."
The minister said she knows this won't be the only case of COVID-19 identified in Alberta schools, so she's working with Hinshaw to get faster testing for staff and students.
"It takes about two to four days to get results. We would like to shorten that up."
Hoffman argues that LaGrange's plan is just a "roll of the dice," hoping that kids don't get sick.
"But they will. They already have," she said. "We deserve a government that takes it seriously and responds in a way that protects all students."
LaGrange argues that people need to understand what it would take to implement the alternate recommendations.
"If you have 13,000 more teachers you need 13,000 more classrooms. We have approximately 2,400 schools," she said.
But Hoffman argues it is possible to make some of the recommendations reality.
"You know what? Roll up your sleeves. There's safe spaces throughout our province right now that we can get — in a lot of places probably for free – and at a far greater subsidized rate than what the premier and minister are putting out there."
It's time to get creative, she added.
"You're going to have to start picking up the phone and making sure we have additional classroom space through recreation centres and libraries and maybe the private sector," Hoffman said.
"There's universities and colleges all around our province that are going virtual this year, so they've got empty space in their buildings."
Alberta's 740,000 students are expected back in classrooms at the beginning of September. The Calgary Board of Education and Calgary Catholic School District said they will be releasing further details on their re-entry plans and guidelines in the days to come.