Black Gold School Division's request to move all Grades 7 to 12 classes online denied by province

The Black Gold School division wanted to move all of its 5,000 junior and senior high students to online learning. The province only allowed one of the schools in the division to go online and the district says it will now take a school by school approach.

Only 1 school permitted to switch to online learning

École Secondaire Beaumont Composite High School in the Black Gold School Division. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

The Black Gold School Division's request to the province to move to Grades 7-12 to online learning for two weeks has been denied, except for one school. 

Grades 7-12 students at Thorsby Junior-Senior High were the only group permitted to move online immediately. It is expected that the students will return to the classroom on May 10. 

The central Alberta school division had asked the province to move all of its 5,000 junior and senior high students to online learning, due to a shortage of substitute teachers and a rising number of students in isolation.

A spokesperson for the education minister said in an email that they have been working closely with the division and each request is evaluated based on four factors: a chronic substitute teacher shortage, number of staff and students in quarantine or isolation, other requests the board may have made and the cases of COVID-19 in the community. 

"When reviewing the data provided by Black Gold against the established criteria, Alberta Education determined that the school division did not meet the requirements," Nicole Sparrow said.

"According to data provided by the board to Alberta Education, 41 per cent of their schools that offer Grades 7-12 did not have any COVID-19 cases nor did they have any students or staff quarantining."

Superintendent Bill Romanchuk thinks the criteria is challenging for them based on the size of the district and the varying situations in the different communities. 

"We had some schools where one-third of the students were in quarantine or isolation," Romanchuk said. 

"But we also had a couple of schools where we didn't have any students in quarantine or isolation … I understand their position, which is to keep as many students in school and learning as possible, but at the same time we are trying to avoid possibly a bigger shutdown later on."

School divisions in Fort McMurray, Edmonton and Calgary have already switched to online learning in recent weeks.

The Black Gold School Division covers a large area south of Edmonton from the New Sarepta area to the east, to the Warburg area in the west. It includes more than 11,000 students.

According to Romanchuk, the district was unable to fill 17 empty teaching spots on Friday, and 13 spots on Monday.

"When we can't fill positions from our sub system we're basically putting all hands on deck," Romanchuk said. 

"From our division office, anybody that has a teaching certificate is basically out in a school acting as a supply teacher ... The other thing is that we've had to combine some classes to be able to supervise them and in doing so what we're doing is we are breaking their cohorts.

"Should any of the students or teachers in that case come down with a positive case we're going to have a lot more teachers and students out."

The road ahead

Robin Roy moved to Beaumont about two years ago and has three kids enrolled in the Black Gold School division.

Her children only spent about six months in their new schools before the pandemic sent them online last spring. As a family, they decided to continue with online learning this year in hopes that the situation would be mostly resolved by the next school year. She said the current COVID-19 situation makes a safe return in the fall less certain. 

"It really throws it into question. I have to weigh out some pretty serious pros and cons," Roy said. "I was confident in going because I know the school's do their utmost best but then to hear that they can't even get support when they need it … I just don't know."