Most Edmonton high schools switching to quarterly system next year

Most Edmonton high school students will take fewer courses at a time next school year.

Schools hope fewer classes at a time helps minimize contact between students during COVID-19 pandemic

Edmonton schools will offer diploma exams four times next year, in November, January, April and June. (CBC)

Most Edmonton high school students will take fewer courses at a time next school year.

Starting in September, most Edmonton public and Catholic high schools will switch to a "quarterly" system, both school divisions announced on Monday.

The alternative schedule will allow students to power through courses within a couple of months before writing exams, then switching to the next few subjects.

It's a switch prompted by the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has shuttered Alberta schools to students since the end of March.

With students expected to return to in-person classes in September, Edmonton schools wanted to limit mingling of large numbers of students and be ready to pivot back to remote lessons, should Alberta see a surge in COVID cases.

"It makes it a little bit easier for contact tracing, should there be an outbreak in a school," Carrie Rosa, an Edmonton Public Schools spokesperson, said on Monday. "This will allow us to build these cohorts a little bit more easily because they're only in two different classes as opposed to moving about the school all day."

Most high schools operate on a semester system: many students take four courses between September and January, then write final exams, then enrol in four more courses for the remainder of the school year.

Shifting to a quarterly model will see students take a 150-minute class in the morning in one subject, and a 150-minute afternoon class in another subject. Students enrolled in three-credit courses would take each class on alternating days.

Schools would also hold diploma exams in November, January, April and June next year.

Quarter system could help improve online lessons

Edmonton Catholic Schools deputy superintendent Tim Cusack said students and staff found it difficult to manage four or more different classes this spring when classes suddenly became remote.

Some teachers were keeping track of up to 160 students at a time, he said.

"We thought, there needs to be a way to minimize some of the stress and anxiety should we have to maintain an authentic online stance come the fall, or at any point again in the future," he said.

Cardinal Collins High School Academic Centre, which is geared toward fourth and fifth year students and English Language Learners, has been using the quarter system for about a decade.

Cusack said after hearing feedback from teachers and families, schools were looking for a system that was more adaptable.

Although students are anticipated to return to classes in person this fall, the education minister has outlined three scenarios for schools to operate during a pandemic. She has said they must be ready to shift between the scenarios, which include a full-time return to classes, a modified schedule where students attend part-time in groups or a return to all remote lessons.

Harry Ainlay High School student Vienna Christiansen (left) and her mother Brandi (right) like the idea of introducing quarterly classes in Edmonton high schools next year. Vienna is anxious to get back to in-person classes, and says she has the attention span for a 150-minute class. (Supplied by Brandi Christiansen)

Brandi Christiansen, chair of the school council at Harry Ainlay High School, said her three daughters are studious and smart but "absolutely hated" online learning this spring.

They're anxious to go back, but with close to 3,000 teens packed into Harry Ainlay, Christiansen has wondered how the school can run safely. Quarter-year classes are a good solution that would also be easier for students to manage from home, she said Monday.

"School is so much more than just learning, and the teachers have done their very best that they could," she said. "But nothing, nothing can replace an in-person teacher. A computer just can't do it."

Her daughter, 15-year-old Vienna Christiansen, is yearning to get back to in-person classes regardless of the format. She said class discussions and communication online was far from engaging.

"I think it's a cool way to start bringing students back into the school setting," said Vienna, who starts Grade 11 this fall. "I think it's a good way to allow the students to get more of those interactions between the students and teachers."

Approach varies between divisions

Some alternative schools, such as Old Scona Academic, and K-12 schools, such as Victoria School of the Arts and J.H. Picard, will not adopt the quarterly system.

Cusack said about 10,000 Catholic school students will be affected by the change. Edmonton Public Schools expects the majority of its 22,000 full-time high school students to be affected.

Both boards will use the system for at least one school year, evaluate it, then decide what to do in fall 2021.

Some other Alberta school boards may follow Edmonton's moves.

Parkland public school division will switch its Stony Plain and Spruce Grove high schools to a quarterly system.

St. Albert Public Schools and Elk Island Public Schools are considering it.

The Calgary Board of Education, the province's largest school board, plans to keep classes as they are.

"A decision to move to quarter system in all our high school settings is a major departure from our current practice and is not under consideration at this time," spokesperson Megan Geyer said in a Monday email.

Elk Island Catholic Schools will also keep the semester system.

Colin Aitchison, press secretary for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said school boards have the power to set their own calendars. The government hasn't tracked which boards are trying the alternative schedule this year, he said.

He does expect Alberta Education will incur some additional costs to administer more sittings of diploma exams throughout the year.