Edmonton·In Depth

Clock ticking down on COVID-19 pandemic-era return to Alberta schools

With a potential return to classrooms less than seven weeks away, employees, parents and others have questions about how schools will adapt and function under the global threat of a virus with no cure, whose transmission scientists are still trying to understand.

Few divisions have yet released detailed plans about how they intend to run in the new normal

Alberta's chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press and Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Lockers clamped shut and barred from use.

Seating plans and desks lined up in rows to keep students facing in the same direction.

Soft furnishings and area rugs removed or taped off.

Some Alberta return-to-school plans suggest students will this fall walk into a far more sterile, restrictive environments than the buildings they left in March.

With a potential return to classrooms less than seven weeks away, employees, parents and others have questions about how schools will adapt and function under the threat of COVID-19.

"We need to make sure that teachers feel comfortable and safe, that students feel comfortable and safe, and their parents do as well, because you're not going to be learning very well in a school that you don't feel comfortable in," Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling said.

In an interview last week, Schilling said he worries the provincial government, school divisions and employees are running out of time to resolve outstanding challenges.

In June, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange unveiled guidelines for potentially re-opening schools in September. At the time, she said the government was leaning toward running schools as normally as possible.

Health officials and government leaders are considering three scenarios: a full-time re-opening, as normally as possible; a partial re-opening, where students would attend on alternate days or in a rotating schedule; or returning to the spring arrangement of students learning remotely at home.

Schools expected to re-open this fall face a challenge of keeping students physically separated as class sizes are expected to grow due to budget constraints. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

LaGrange has promised to announce which plan schools will follow by Aug. 1. Schools must also be prepared to switch between scenarios on short notice.

Since provincial guidelines were revealed, a few Alberta school divisions have released detailed plans for how they envision a return to class might look.

Many boards, including Edmonton public, Edmonton Catholic, and Calgary Board of Education, are waiting to hear the government's decision before revealing the nuts and bolts of how pandemic-time school will work.

Brandi Rai, president of the Alberta School Councils Association, said it's difficult for parents to make decisions about the fall without seeing local plans.

"With only a few weeks left, we're all feeling in the dark," Rai said. "It's great to have guidelines, but until we know the details, I don't think any of us feel overly confident or prepared to send our children back."

Countries that have successfully re-opened schools have also prevented spread of coronavirus in the community more generally, she said. She's watching Alberta and Edmonton's case numbers closely.

Plans call for extra cleaning, masks and student cohorts

At least two school divisions have revealed how they intend to change daily school operations.

Calgary Catholic Schools has published a 160-page School Resumption Handbook. With slight variations for elementary, junior high and high schools, there are common expectations. 

The plan assumes schools will return to the second scenario, where half of students attend on alternating days.

There would be a limit of 15 people per classroom, including students and staff, or whatever number would allow people to stay two metres apart.

Lockers would be out of use and students are expected to carry their belongings with them. Direction markers would line hallways and high-touch points like door handles and vending machines would get extra cleaning, the plan says.

Although students wouldn't have to wear masks at this point, they will be required to bring a mask to school. Parents and most visitors would need to stay out of the building, and wear a mask when they come in. People in close contact for more than 15 minutes should also be masked.

There would be no sharing of food, singing or cheering. Students would be assigned a designated entrance and exit door, and start times may be staggered to prevent a rush into the building. Schools would be expected to track cases of any respiratory illness.

Brandi Rai is president of the Alberta School Councils Association. (Supplied/Alberta School Councils Association)

Rocky View Schools' plans are similar. Alberta's fifth-most populous division, which surrounds Calgary and includes the communities of Airdrie, Cochrane and Chestermere, has a tentative plan for each of the three scenarios.

In the event of a full-time return to school, the emphasis would be on screening students and staff for symptoms daily — ideally, before they leave home. 

Soft furniture that can't be cleaned will be removed or taped off. Clutter will be cleared out to simplify cleaning. Students should be seated in rows, not at tables, to avoid facing one another.

Everyone must use hand sanitizer on the way in and out of the building. Sharing any equipment would be discouraged, and if students do, it needs to be wiped down with disinfectant wipes.

There would be no fine arts performances, no hallway locker use, no outside presenters, no shared microwaves or water fountains, no playing of wind instruments or singing, no field trips that require vehicle transportation and occupancy limits in bathrooms.

School buses would have seating plans and drivers would don protective gear.

Infirmaries would only be used to isolate people who develop COVID-like symptoms. Portable electrostatic cleaners would be use to disinfect classrooms.

And, no, we can't promise to keep your children apart, the plan tells parents and guardians.

"This is why it is so important that anyone showing symptoms needs to stay home, get tested and cleared before returning to school," the plan says.

Face-to-face learning

Rocky View superintendent Greg Luterbach said in an interview this week there are a "ton of logistical challenges" to tackle. The plans were crafted with feedback from about 17,000 families who responded to a June survey, he said.

Success will depend on co-operation from staff and families to diligently monitor themselves for symptoms and stay away if they're sick. Workers who go to more than one building must sign in and out in case health officials need to contact trace during an outbreak.

Bryan Szumlas, superintendent of Calgary Catholic Schools, said schools will also have to balance public health precautions with teaching best practices.

His division is buying thousands of clear face shields so that younger children learning to read and write can see teachers' mouths as they're shaping letter and syllable sounds.

With a growing enrolment and nearly-flat budgets in urban school divisions, class sizes are bound to rise this year, Szumlas said.

Edmonton school divisions have laid off teachers and educational assistants in the face of tighter provincial budgets.

"There's no way that we can get 30 students into a classroom, keeping them two metres apart," Szumlas said.

More cleaning staff and supplies, personal protective equipment and replacing sick workers will increase costs, he said.

The provincial government has been firm that no extra money is coming to help schools absorb the additional costs of adapting to COVID-19. LaGrange's press secretary, Colin Aitchison, said in an email last week school boards will have flexibility to use maintenance funding to cover those expenses.

Although safety has to be the priority, educators are anxious to get the kids back at it, Szumlas said.

"Nothing can beat face-to-face instruction, so I would love to see us moving to get our students back into our schools, and I think as society, I think parents would want that as well," he said.

Alberta Teachers Association president Jason Schilling says he has many unanswered questions about teachers' duties and safety as people prepare to return to schools this fall during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Unanswered questions

Teachers' association president Schilling said unresolved issues remain in the reopening plans as they stand.

Late last month, he wrote a letter to the minister raising his concerns. 

"If they want to make these scenario plans work, then they need to fund them adequately and appropriately," Schilling said.

Keeping people physically apart is just one of several strategies public health officials are recommending to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19 in schools, said Alberta Health spokesman Tom McMillan.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw doesn't expect young children to sit still in rows of desks all day long, McMillan said in an email last week. 

Among Hinshaw's other recommendations are orienting desks to prevent face-to-face contact when possible, screening people for symptoms and preventing ill people from coming to schools, grouping students together in cohorts and frequent use of hand sanitizer.

"We know that there will be some public health measures that are more easily adopted in some schools than in others," McMillan said.

"That is why the guidance is diverse and flexible, meant to be tailored to specific needs."

About the Author

Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also been a reporter at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca

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