How does school work when students and teachers are in and out of quarantine?

With several Calgary schools already reporting COVID-19 outbreaks during the first weeks of classes, parents, students and teachers are wondering what happens to learning when some students and teachers have to go into quarantine?

Teachers will maintain regular presence through online platforms, says CBE superintendent

Joanne Pitman, superintendent of school improvement, says the CBE is managing a range of emotions and concerns. (CBC)

With several Calgary schools already reporting COVID-19 outbreaks during the first weeks of classes, parents, students and teachers are wondering what happens to learning when some students and teachers have to go into quarantine?

Joanne Pitman, superintendent of school improvement with the Calgary Board of Education, says the situation is still evolving.

"It is an ever changing situation, and as we experience different variables of this, we're making improvements as we go," Pitman told the Calgary Eyeopener. "Where we have a teacher who is quarantining along with their entire class, that teacher continues to teach online."

Pitman says a teacher's online presence will provide a sense of continuity.

"Right now, what we have made sure of is all of our teachers are required to have an online presence either in Google classroom or through D2L, which is a learning management system," she said. "The focus for each of those is that they maintain a daily presence, and documentation of assignments and or instructions and course resources."

Pitman conceded the first weeks back to school, and the now more than 35 school outbreaks, have presented challenges.

"In an earlier interview this spring, I referenced it as a return to school will take a herculean effort on the part of us all. And it is certainly taking that," Pitman said. "And we've seen incredible commitment. Having said that, managing the range of emotions, and the concerns that are continually identified, we have to work through those in a measured way."

Outbreaks in schools are declared whenever there are two or more cases in a single school.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, chief medical officer of health for the province, reported Monday that the 35 Alberta schools had reported a total of 42 cases. That has increased today in Calgary, with more schools reporting new cases. 

With community transmission levels higher in the past few weeks, it is not surprising to see cases in schools, Hinshaw said. She urged parents to remain patient with the 14-day isolation requirement.

"I recognize that this is very inconvenient for families, and I regret the impact that this is having on those students and their families," she said.

The Calgary schools with outbreaks are Notre Dame High School, Lester B. Pearson High School, Henry Wise Wood High School, Crescent Heights High School and Auburn Bay School. There is an outbreak at Ross Sheppard High School in Edmonton, and Chinook High School in Lethbridge. 

On Tuesday, St. Wilfrid Elementary School, which is part of the Catholic system, declared a watch. That means there are five or more cases and the disease could have been transmitted in the school.

Some parents are growing concerned about how students can effectively keep learning as both teachers and students go in and out of quarantine. Additionally, teachers have to be prepared to do both in-person and online teaching depending on what happens with their students or their own children.

The outbreaks mean that hundreds of students, and some teachers, are at home for at least two weeks.

Parent concerns

The Calgary Eyeopener spoke with the parent of a Grade 10 student from Bowness High School who is now quarantined at home.

"It really surprises me that this hasn't been figured out. They had time to anticipate the upcoming challenges, and they don't seem prepared at all," said the parent, who did not want to be identified to protect the privacy of her son.

She is concerned about the mental health of her son, who is now trying to learn in isolation after attending just four days of school. 

"It's been very challenging. He has a learning disability. So this is not kind of what we envisioned the year to look like, on top of the fact that he's isolating in the basement, away from his activities and his family and his friends, he's finding it very difficult to teach himself," she said.

"We've looked at bringing on a tutor to try to get him caught up because we're quite concerned that he's going to be behind at the start of the year."

According to the CBE's website, only close contacts of a person who is a COVID-19 case are required to quarantine. Family members and secondary contacts are not required to quarantine — which explains why only some people from any given class are required to stay away.

And that's just for those who choose to return to school in person. Families who signed up for the CBE's Hub online learning program say they're still waiting for elusive details on who their child's teacher is and when the online learning will begin. 

The concerned parent from Bowness High School said the online learning plan seems to rely on kids like her son being able to navigate everything on their own.

"He needs support at school. He needs to be taught how to do classes with direction and instruction. And he's not getting that," she said.

She wondered why her son couldn't just video conference into the classroom, to lessen his sense of isolation.

Privacy concerns with live streaming

But as Pitman points out, live streaming classrooms comes with a host of privacy concerns.

"There are absolutely some privacy concerns with live streaming into a classroom," Pitman said. "In terms of FOIP and privacy of what occurs within a school, we certainly have legislation and regulations that we need to make sure are followed carefully. But we also recognize the pressure on trying to create flexibility during absolute disruption." 

Pitman said one solution could be pre-recorded lessons from a teacher that the student could watch at home.

Pitman said the CBE is also working on plans to ensure that no students are penalized for falling behind due to quarantine or if they become ill.

"It isn't solely that they can just maintain simultaneous handing in of assignments or assignment completion.… There may need to be certain assignments that are waived or certain assignments that are prioritized," she said. "All of it requires significant followup. There's no way to make this sound simple or make it an easy answer, because it is also really contextual to the individual as well."

Students won't be penalized

Pitman says the situation will continue to evolve.

"I think that we have seen incredible commitment on both our families, our staff, our administrators and all of the varied support staff and facilities," she said. "We've already made and continue to adjust plans to respond to the various pressures.… And also our staff have put forward an incredible effort as they also make sense of the realities, both for their professional and personal life."

The CBE says parents will be notified by Alberta Health Services if their child may have been exposed to a confirmed case of COVID-19 at school, and public health officials will contact those who were in close contact with the person.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.


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