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Alberta Teachers' Association calls on province to delay start of school year

The Alberta Teachers' Association is calling on the province to push back the first day of school until after Labour Day to give teachers and principals more time to prepare for a school year under the COVID-19 pandemic.

ATA wants start of school year pushed back until after Labour Day

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange met with president Jason Schilling on Wednesday to discuss the Alberta Teachers' Association concerns with the province's back-to-school plans. (Jordan Mesiatowsky and Scott Neufeld/CBC)

The Alberta Teachers' Association is calling on the province to push back the first day of school until after Labour Day to give teachers and principals more time to prepare for teaching through the COVID-19 pandemic. 

With the school year set to begin the first week of September, ATA president Jason Schilling says the government should postpone classes until at least Sept. 8. At that point, Schilling says individual schools should be left to decide if they're ready to reopen.

Schilling met with Education Minister Adriana LaGrange Wednesday afternoon to discuss the association's concerns with the province's back-to-school plan.

Schilling said no agreements were struck during the meeting but with just two weeks left until the start of school, he expects to hear back from the minister soon after she speaks with school boards. 

"We're taking a medical plan that's been put forward by the chief medical officer of health and trying to make it an education plan. And teachers and principals need time to reconcile those two things together," Schilling said at a news conference following Wednesday's meeting. 

"They need time to get this right and I would much rather be overprepared than underprepared with the start of the school year." 

Last week, the B.C. government announced students would return to school on Sept. 10, instead of Sept. 8, as part of the province's gradual restart to classes.  

Call for smaller classes, more support

The meeting comes as the association continues to pressure the government into bolstering measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools and increase support inside the classroom.

Earlier in August the ATA laid out a list of seven priorities, from establishing a COVID-19 education working group to improving ventilation in schools.

Then, at the association's annual assembly last week, teachers from across the province passed resolutions calling for smaller classes, increased support staff, better mental health support and public nurses in schools. 

The assembly's motion of non-confidence in the minister was ultimately referred to the ATA's executive council after debate continued into early Saturday morning. That day, Schilling demanded a meeting with LaGrange to discuss teachers' concerns.

"Ensuring the safety and well-being of our staff and students has guided all decision making around school re-entry since we first cancelled in-person classes in March and we thank the ATA for their role in helping us develop the current school re-entry plan," LaGrange said in a statement after Wednesday's meeting.

Smaller classes have been a pillar of the ATA's demands. Schilling says teachers are concerned about managing health protocols, especially in classes of upwards of 30 students.

School boards, he says, will need money from the province to address the issue. 

"There was really no conclusive discussion about how that would look," Schilling said. "I know that school boards will have to look at what that means for them and how they can address those issues but they'll need funding from the province in order to do that." 

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange and ATA president Jason Schilling met to discuss teachers' concerns with the province's back-to-school plans on Wednesday afternoon. (Supplied by Ted Bauer)

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, has suggested the classroom, in many ways, reflects the broader community when it comes to COVID-19. If community transmission rates are low, evidence suggests transmission rates will be similarly low in schools, Hinshaw says.

At a news conference Tuesday, Hinshaw pointed to Sweden where she says elementary teachers had a lower risk of contracting COVID-19 than the general population and their class sizes were, on average, over 20 students. 

Hinshaw is recommending schools cohort their classes, in part to make contact tracing easier and limit the number of people who need to self-isolate if there's a confirmed COVID-19 case. In elementary schools, that means classes stay together throughout the day.

Most Edmonton high schools will adopt a quarterly system. Students can take up to two classes each quarter, compared to four in the typical two-semester year, which the schools anticipate will minimize contact between students. The Calgary Board of Education, the province's largest school board, plans to keep classes as they are.

In a tweet Wednesday, Edmonton Catholic Schools said its schools will post their re-entry plans by Monday morning. 

With files from Janet French and Andrew Jeffrey

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