Edmonton school boards need more money to reopen safely during pandemic, board chairs say

Edmonton Public Schools will require all staff and most students to wear masks at all times when classes resume this fall.

Edmonton schools released COVID-19 back-to-school plans Tuesday

Edmonton's public and Catholic school divisions have released their re-entry plans, providing more details about how K-12 education will look for thousands of students during the coronavirus pandemic. (Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

Edmonton Public Schools will require all staff and most students to wear masks at all times when classes resume this fall.

On Tuesday, the school division announced its mask requirements would go beyond new provincial rules unveiled by the Alberta government earlier in the day.

Public school board chair Trisha Estabrooks said many of the division's 215 schools are so full, the board felt masks were a must for crowded classrooms and hallways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It is impossible in most of our classrooms to physically distance students," Estabrooks said. "That's why Edmonton public had already decided to mandate masks for students who are physically, developmentally and psychologically able to wear a mask in classrooms."

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange and Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, announced Tuesday morning they were mandating all students in Grades 4 to 12 and school staff to wear masks while in hallways, common areas and while working closely with others.

Hinshaw said even if students aren't seated two metres apart in classrooms, they could take off their masks if they are all facing in the same direction and working alone at their desks.

Hinshaw said the age distinction is driven by evidence that children 10 or older may be more likely to spread COVID-19.

Edmonton public's mask rules go further than the provincial mandate, requiring masks at all times in classrooms and the rest of the building for workers and students in Grade 4 to 12. Staff will ask younger students who are able to tolerate masks to wear them when possible.

Class sizes in Alberta have expanded over the last 15 years. Many growing Alberta school boards have struggled to juggle an influx of students, a lag of new school construction in suburbs and essentially flat public funding, limiting their ability to hire more teachers.

Edmonton schools need more cash to open safely, boards say

As Edmonton public and Catholic school boards introduced their re-entry plans Tuesday, both board chairs said government funding provided for this year is insufficient to cope with running schools safely during the pandemic.

LaGrange has said the province's 61 school boards have a collective $360 million in reserve funds and should not need any additional funding to adapt to COVID-19.

Some teachers and parents have said it's not enough.

LaGrange's message changed somewhat on Tuesday, when she announced the government would spend $10 million to provide 1.6 million reusable masks to all 750,000 Alberta students and 90,000 school employees. The money will also help pay for clear face shields for all school workers, touchless thermometers and 466,000 litres of hand sanitizer.

Mandatory masks coming to Alberta schools

2 years ago
Duration 2:54
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw detail Alberta's plans for school re-entry and mandatory masks.

Estabrooks said the investment is nowhere near the funding Edmonton Public Schools alone needs to properly bring all students back to class full time.

"The board of trustees believes to properly put in place Scenario 1 would require an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars," she said. "That would be money spent on smaller class sizes and to actually make physical distancing a reality in our classrooms."

Estabrooks said the board will ask the government for at least $30 million for more custodians, teachers and support workers for students with disabilities.

The division's re-entry plan calls for furnishings and accoutrements to be removed from classrooms to make more space. But Estabrooks and superintendent Darrel Robertson were adamant there is not enough room to keep students two metres apart, as recommended by public health leaders to prevent the spread of the virus.

Edmonton Catholic school board chair Sandra Palazzo said that division needs at least $4 million to $5 million more for protective equipment for staff, cleaning products, and extra teaching and cleaning staff.

"Our board will continue to advocate for financial support in our response to COVID," she said.

Palazzo said the education ministry has been attentive to the division's needs. She said she's confident the government has students' best interests in mind.

In an email, LaGrange's press secretary Colin Aitchison said the government is confident the provincial funding already supplied is adequate for boards to meet public health guidelines.

No shared food for special events

Many aspects of the public and Catholic divisions' operating plans echo blueprints already released by other Alberta school boards.

Both boards will have a remote learning option, and students can toggle between in-person classes and distance learning at four points during the year. Students who fall ill or need to isolate will receive lesson bundles from their schools.

Staff and students are expected to run through a checklist of possible symptoms and stay away if they have any signs of COVID-19. Students who become ill at school will be immediately escorted to a dedicated infirmary room to await pickup by their family.

Classes will be kept in cohorts and avoid sharing any equipment or tools.

Edmonton Catholic's plan suggests plastic shields at reception desks, seating plans in classrooms and buses, and the cancellation of any field trips requiring transportation.

Vending machines and microwaves will be inaccessible, pre-packaged meals can only be served in cafeterias and meal programs, and potlucks and birthday cupcakes are history.

Catholic K-9 schools will have a "closed campus" during the day, preventing most students from coming and going.

Edmonton Catholic's mask policy will align with provincial rules.

Parents have questions about mask requirements

Christopher Roth, who has four kids in Edmonton Public Schools, said on Tuesday he agrees with the new provincial mask rules. It will be difficult to keep children apart in school and masks could help contain spread of the virus, he said.

Dena Heyganus, who has two daughters in Catholic school, says she's torn between wishing her children could have a normal return to school and wanting assurances they will be safe.

Masks in schools are a good idea, since not every family follows public health recommendations and kids are constantly touching things, she said.

Carrie Slater, who has three children in school, supports mask use in schools, but wonders whether kids will get their standard government-issued masks mixed up if they all look the same. If students are taking their masks off and on for meals and recess, that also increases the frequency of them touching their faces — which people are supposed to avoid, she said.

Telling children in packed classrooms to wear masks all day might be too much to ask of young kids, she said.

See Edmonton Public Schools' re-entry plan on its website.
See Edmonton Catholic Schools' re-entry plan on its website.

With files from Travis McEwan

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