'We're in unprecedented territory': Alberta educators figuring out next steps for cancelled classes

Schools were open around the province on Monday, but instead of presiding over classes and hallways full of students, teachers and school administration were sending children who arrived for class back home.

Alberta schools figuring out lesson plans after classes cancelled

Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, with Premier Jason Kenney at her side, addresses a news conference Sunday in Edmonton. (Art Raham/CBC News)

Schools were open around the province on Monday, but instead of presiding over classes and hallways full of students, teachers and school administration were sending children who arrived for class back home.

On Sunday, the Alberta government announced all kindergarten to Grade 12 classes in Alberta are cancelled indefinitely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The announcement Sunday didn't give parents much notice to prepare, but Edmonton Public Schools board chair Trisha Estabrooks said that after overwhelming feedback from concerned parents about cancelling classes, she's happy with the province's decision.

"I know this was not an easy decision that our government made. It's the right decision," said Estabrooks, who added she's not sure when classes will return.

"That being said, I recognize certainly that this will be a hardship for many, many parents."

The province's social distancing guidelines would have been difficult for schools to follow, Estabrooks said, especially with some Edmonton high schools already over capacity. Absent staff who may need to self-isolate at home would have made operating normally even more difficult.

Education staff began work on Monday on how remote learning plans could be delivered. Instruction has been paused this week and the division's spring break begins next week, Estabrooks said, meaning March 30 is the earliest any alternative education model might be used.

"Parents will start to learn more details, what learning will look like, whether that's an online idea or whether it's you go to your kids' school and pick up a paper package," Estabrooks said. 

"It's early days, we're a huge school division and staff is trying to wrap their heads around this."

Estabrooks said the new reality will be difficult for many people to wrap their heads around. She added that by not going to school, students are doing their part to help tackle this public health crisis.

"Kids are not vulnerable to this in the same way that other age groups are, but they can spread the virus," Estabrooks said. "They're sacrificing not going to school to protect the health of the entire population."

Edmonton Public Schools board chair Trisha Estabrooks said teachers and education staff are in school this week, amid cancelled classes, to begin work on how an alternative remote learning plan will work for students. (Terry Reith/CBC)

For now, one of the first tasks for schools will be figuring out a safe, orderly way for students to pick up books, supplies and personal items stashed in lockers and desks, Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"Schedules will be developed by schools to limit the numbers of people coming to the school at any given time," LaGrange said. 

"But this gives school divisions and school boards ... as well as teachers, the flexibility to deal with the situation as it is evolving."

The move to cancel classes offered no guarantee when or if students will return this year.

During Sunday's announcement, LaGrange was clear that every student would receive a final mark and students will be able to move to the next grade in the fall.

Digital and web-based alternatives will be considered, along with other ways of sending work home with students, she said. The final plans on alternative education models will be guided by individual school districts, based on what they think will be most successful.

"This will look different from jurisdiction to jurisdiction," she said. "We have approximately 780,000 students across this province that will be learning in very different manners."

A priority is being placed on the province's Grade 12 students, ensuring they are able to write key diploma exams, which are worth 30 per cent of a final grade. As well, Alberta's advanced education minister will be ensuring "that these extraordinary circumstances do not prevent their students from being eligible for admission," LaGrange said.

LaGrange said she is aware of the difficulties this creates for parents. She said the decision was not made lightly. 

"I am a mother of seven and a grandmother of four. I totally understand the concerns and the challenges that parents will be facing. My message … first and foremost, is that we want to keep our children safe, and this is essential to keeping our children, the teachers and our school communities safe," she said.

"It is an unprecedented, uncharted territory that we're in. And we thank (parents) greatly for their patience and their understanding as we go through this very, very unusual time."

Edmonton Catholic Schools spokesperson Lori Nagy said the division is still working on a remote learning plan, as the division wants to ensure the online learning they will provide aligns with other schools around the province.

Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling said teachers are still working with administrators on how to move forward, and what this means for Alberta's education system in the long-term.

"It's not something you prepare for," Schilling said on Monday. 

"You heard it a lot this weekend in the press conferences that we're in unprecedented territory here. I think my colleagues are professionals and they're trained to be just that, teachers. So they'll find a way to work forward through this."

Alberta was one of the last provinces to cancel classes, and is one of the only provinces without a timeline for their return. On Monday, Newfoundland and Labrador made the same announcement, as did Saskatchewan where classes will close on Friday. 

Quebec's schools are closed for two weeks beginning Monday, as are classes in Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. Meanwhile, Ontario and Nova Scotia's publicly funded schools are closed until at least April 3 and Manitoba schools are closed until at least April 10.

British Columbia is the only province that hasn't closed schools amid the pandemic. A two-week spring break will leave students out of class this week and next, and their provincial government has said they'll review the situation further over the holiday.