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Critics concerned Alberta school divisions can't afford the price of pandemic safety

On Wednesday, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange expressed her hope that in September Alberta students would return to the classroom under near normal conditions. Critics wonder how schools will pay for the necessary health measures to keep staff and students safe.

'Who's cleaning the school between classes, or who's cleaning the materials?' ATA president asks

Alberta's education minister hopes children in the province will be able to return to the classroom in September. (Syda Productions / Shutterstock)

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange hopes that Alberta students will return to the classroom under near-normal conditions in September, but critics wonder how school divisions will pay for the necessary health measures to keep staff and students safe. 

Students, parents, teachers and school boards will get a definitive answer at the beginning of August on what back-to-school will look like in Alberta for the 2020-21 year. 

"Our goal is to get us back to normal learning as soon as possible," LaGrange said at a news conference Wednesday. "We feel we have a very solid re-entry plan." 

LaGrange reiterated the three possible scenarios.

Near-normal operations with some health measures in place is the preferred option. A second scenario involves a partial return with stricter health measures in place including physical distancing and no more than 15 people in a classroom.

The final scenario is a continuation of teacher-directed, at-home learning. 

"The minister didn't exactly give any breaking, new information today," public education advocate Wing Li, who is with the group Support our Students Alberta, told CBC News. "She had provided the three scenarios a few weeks prior." 

Li wanted to hear how additional health and cleaning measures would be paid for. LaGrange, when asked, did not commit to providing any extra funding. 

"School divisions have within their budgets the ability to allocate funds and resources to address these needs," LaGrange said. 

Li said the underlying message was clear. 

Public education advocate Wing Li is with the volunteer organization Support Our Students Alberta. (Wing Li )

"She obviously used coded language in saying there's enough in your budgets to do this, when in reality we know that's not the case," Li said. 

Sarah Hoffman, the NDP's education critic, echoed Li's concerns. 

"The minister has said nothing about where these additional costs for PPE, for example, for additional spacing, for additional staff," Hoffman said. "These are all things that parents, staff and families have told me they expect we will need in a return to scenario one."

She said schools are already facing a budget crunch with staffing shortages, so there's no money to pay for extra costs.

"We're going to continue pressuring the minister to make sure that we get answers," Hoffman said. "Because right now, there is no money in the budget."

'Who's cleaning the school between classes?'

On Tuesday, the Alberta Teachers' Association released a preliminary report on a survey conducted about the impact of coronavirus. More than 8,000 teachers and school leaders across the province were asked what they thought about returning to the classroom.  

By far the biggest concern was school safety, including PPE, physical distancing measures, large class sizes and school cleanliness and hygiene.  

"Who's cleaning the school between classes, or who's cleaning the materials?" ATA president Jason Schilling said in an interview with CBC News. 

"We're hearing from school boards that they're having to make cuts right now. And if they're making cuts to staffing, do they have the money in place to procure the things that they need to execute the health requirements?"

Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling has heard from teachers who fear they will be responsible for keeping things clean and physically distanced. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Schilling said he's heard from teachers who are worried they will have to take responsibility for keeping things clean and physically distanced, in addition to their regular teaching duties. 

"I know that the government has indicated they're willing to listen for more input and so we'll make sure that we have those discussions with them," Schilling said. 

Li has already decided to keep her daughter home from Grade 1, if at all possible, should classes resume in September.

She said she's not the only one. 

"We've already heard from parents because they reach out directly to us," Li said. "They don't trust that it's going to work. 

"Our classrooms are already crowded. With more kids in the classroom because of the budget cuts, this is just not feasible." 

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