Recess, class size and catching up: Alberta school leaders begin to plan for pandemic-era classes

Alberta school division leaders have begun to envision what classes could look like when students are allowed to return in person.

Alberta's education minister says no decisions made yet on what happens in September

Alberta school leaders are planning for how in-person classes could resume safely during the COVID-19 pandemic, even though they don't know when that will happen. (Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

Alberta school division leaders have begun to envision what pandemic-era classes might look like when students are allowed to return in person.

A letter from Education Minister Adriana LaGrange to school boards last week confirmed that in-person classes are cancelled for the rest of the 2019-20 school year and said a draft back-to-school plan is in the works. 

Educators have many questions about when students can return to school buildings and what public health measures will be in place when that happens.

"It could look really different from what kids were used to when they left the classes in early March," Edmonton Public Schools board chair Trisha Estabrooks said in a Monday interview.

At a news conference on Wednesday, LaGrange said no decisions have been made about whether or not students will return to classes in the fall.

She outlined three scenarios being considered by the province, in consultation with school authorities and other partners in the education system:

  • Schools would be open and operating under normal conditions as much as possible.
  • Schools would be "generally open but with some health restrictions in place," such as personal protective equipment or physical distancing guidelines for some classes.
  • Schools would not be open and teacher-directed, at-home learning would continue.

"I want to be clear at this time," LaGrange said. "No decisions have been made on any aspect of the re-entry plan. These items are only three of many, many considerations before us.

"Any proposals that ultimately appear in the re-entry plan will be subject to approval by the chief medical officer of health, will be aligned with Alberta's relaunch strategy and will honour collective agreements."

She said while the first scenario is the option "we would all like to see," that would depend on the course taken by the pandemic in coming months.

"The best plan is ... hope for the best and plan for the worst. So we are looking at all possible scenarios."

Leaders assume kids will have to keep apart

Reviving K-12 schools is planned for Stage 2 of the provincial government's COVID-19 reopening plan. The start date will be determined based on the rates of new infections, hospitalizations and intensive care unit cases of COVID-19 as some businesses, restaurants, campgrounds and post-secondary institutions reopen with restrictions.

Red Deer Public Schools has assembled a group of principals and vice-principals to brainstorm how children and teens can safely return to classes once Alberta's chief medical officer of health has given the green light.

Superintendent Stu Henry said Tuesday that if physical distancing recommendations remain — and he expects they will — there are "a million implications" for running schools. 

It could change how classes are arranged, how schools are staffed, how students are transported and even when classes are held. Teaching students in two shifts, such as morning and afternoon, is an option.

Alternately, Red Deer could follow Quebec's lead and keep junior and senior high students at home, then spread elementary students into school buildings across the city to give everyone more space.

The division will probably need more buses if only one student can ride per seat.

Henry said he isn't sure what recess looks like if playgrounds remain shut or whether gym classes can happen at all.

Staffing also worries him. If public health rules compel anyone with a fever or cough to stay isolated at home for at least 10 days, the division will run out of teachers, he said.

Adherence to online and remote learning has also been uneven across the city, he said. Teachers will likely spend the first few months reviewing the material that students would have learned in the last school year.

Until there's a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, there will also be families who feel unready to send their children to school. Henry wonders if schools will continue to be responsible for remote learners when teachers are back in classrooms.

"My hope would be no," he said. "But also, there's a soft part in my heart that goes, 'I would understand a parent who would be nervous about their child returning in September.'"

Space-crunched schools 

Knowing classes are on hold until fall at the earliest gives division leaders time to plan. For that, Edmonton Public Schools board chair Estabrooks is grateful.

"I think we need to go slow. I think we need to be careful," she said.

Trisha Estabrooks, chair of the Edmonton Public School Board, said limits on the number of students in classrooms could be problematic, particularly in space-crunched high schools. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Many Edmonton public high schools are over capacity or filling up. The division has said it needs three more city high schools or it will have nowhere to put nearly 9,000 students by 2027. Government funding for construction of two schools has been approved.

Estabrooks said it will be a challenge if schools had to limit classes to 15 students. Many Alberta classrooms had 30 or more students when they were shut down on March 15.

"When you have a class of 40 in a room that might have been built for 25 back in the day, that's a good question — how do we handle that?" said Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association.

He wondered if classes such as band, choir or drama could proceed safely. Classrooms where benches or tables are fixed to the floor could also be a problem, he said.

After prolonged isolation, rising unemployment and pandemic anxiety, school staff will have to be especially watchful for people with mental health problems, Schilling said.

Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, says he is concerned about class sizes and the extra duties that might be expected of teachers once in-person classes resume. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

Despite the premier's suggestion of an early start, Schilling would prefer if schools reconvened in September. Teachers are still working, he said, delivering classes remotely and online.

Starting early would prompt the need to reopen the teachers' collective agreement or hire them on special contracts, he said.

"People need a holiday as well," he said. "So if classes go to the end of June, the teachers need a holiday, the students need a holiday, their parents need a holiday from trying to work from home as well as teach their own children on a system with their schoolwork."