Alberta teachers feeling stress of pandemic two months into school year

Alberta teachers are feeling pressure from COVID-19 as they face more uncertainty and a heavier workload.

In Edmonton Public Schools, 6,900 students and 750 staff have had to self-isolate so far

A classroom prepared for the new school year at Lillian Osborne High School in southwest Edmonton in September. (David Bajer/CBC)

Two months into the new school year, the pressure is building on teachers across the province.

The start of the school year has been filled with uncertainty and stress, but now increasing COVID-19 case numbers across Alberta have teachers worried.

"The rise in cases is concerning to me, because we know from the science that what you see in a community is often reflected in the schools," said Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association.

Schilling, who was interviewed on CBC's Edmonton AM last week, said surveys of the ATA's members that show a consistently high level of exhaustion are particularly worrying.

As of Friday, 45 schools were on the province's watch list, meaning they have five or more cases of COVID-19.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said on Thursday there were active alerts (involving a single case) or outbreaks (two or more cases) at 249 schools, representing roughly 10 per cent of schools in Alberta, and that in-school transmission has likely occurred in 87 schools in the province.

Edmonton Public Schools alone reports that 6,900 students and 750 staff so far have been directed to isolate by Alberta Health Services after being identified as a close contact to a confirmed COVID-19 case.

"If you get a case in a school, often it's not just one person who goes home," Schilling said. "It has a big ripple effect in the school and the community as well."

At what point do classes move online?

Schilling said teachers have been asking the province when classes would move online if current trends continue, as time is needed to prepare for such a shift.

School divisions planned for three scenarios this year and are currently operating under Scenario 1 with near-normal operations. The province has said the decision to transition to Scenario 2 or 3, which would mean fewer in-person courses or a full move to online classes, will be assessed on a case-by-case basis around the province.

Such a decision would be based on a variety of factors as well as consultation with Hinshaw, said Colin Aitchison, a spokesperson for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange.

"That shift would be coordinated closely with the school board," Aitchison said in an email. "All school boards have prepared to transition to the other scenarios, if needed, as part of the detailed re-entry plan developed earlier this year."

A shortage of substitute teachers around Alberta is also becoming a problem, placing more pressure on other staff members, Schilling said. Increased cleaning responsibilities are also creating a heavier workload for teachers, he added.

Schilling said the ATA wants the province to provide more funding for cleaning staff in schools. It also wants to see smaller class sizes to make physical distancing easier.

"[Teachers] are stressed out," Schilling said. "COVID has been a lot for everybody, and teachers are no different."

'It is challenging'

There's a parallel between how COVID-19 cases are rising in the province and in schools, said Trisha Estabrooks, chair of the Edmonton public school board.

The number of students and staff who have had to self-isolate has been disruptive, Estabrooks said.

"It is disruptive and it is challenging, but that's what we have to do right now when there's a case of COVID," she said, adding the division has a sufficient supply pool of teachers to rely on.

Estabrooks said she's heard from parents who say they're grateful to have multiple chances throughout the year to choose between in person or online learning for their children.

She's also heard from students that they're happy to be back with their friends at school.

Estabrooks said she recognizes it's not easy for online students to sit in front of a screen all day, but the division has put a lot of resources into improving online classes since last spring.

The number of students opting for online learning changed only slightly from the first to second quarter, moving from 29.6 per cent to 31.8.

And while the number of people who have had to isolate is high, Estabrooks said she's encouraged that in-school transmission has been relatively low so far, and she's encouraged by overwhelming positive sentiments she hears from parents and students.

"Things are different, things look different, things feel different for a lot of students, I recognize that," Estabrooks said. "But the fact that we are able as school communities to come back together, I think just speaks to the strength of Edmonton Public's plan."


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