Edmonton schools move Grades 7 to 12 online as COVID-19 cases surge

Grade 7 to 12 students in public and Catholic schools will move to online learning beginning Thursday.

Both divisions face shortages of substitute teachers

Edmonton Public School Board Chair Trisha Estabrooks says switching upper grades to online learning was a necessary move. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Grade 7 to 12 students in Edmonton's two largest school divisions will move to online learning beginning Thursday.

Edmonton Public Schools and Edmonton Catholic Schools said the government has granted a joint request to move the upper grades online for two weeks. Students are set to return to in-person learning on May 6.

In a statement Tuesday, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said she approved the request to move to online learning, saying safety of staff and students is her top priority. 

"I understand this is difficult news to many students, parents and teachers, as in-classroom learning has significant benefits," she said. "However, due to operational concerns, this temporary shift is necessary to ensure learning can continue."

Edmonton Public Schools board chair Trisha Estabrooks said the two divisions asked the province to grant the move online as a "circuit breaker" measure.

"It's a tough decision, but certainly it's time," she said. "When we look at the numbers, they certainly are trending in the wrong direction."

Estabrooks said from April 9 to April 19 the number of cases in the division's 214 schools jumped from 21 to 112.

Lack of substitute teachers

Another pressure point is that the division is running out of substitute teachers. Estabrooks said schools needed to fill 76 positions on a recent day.

Superintendent Darrel Robertson said Tuesday that about 400 of the district's teachers were in self-isolation. Moving older grades online will free up substitute teachers to support elementary grades.

Roberston said it would be preferable to have all students learning in classrooms, but keeping elementary schools open is important because of the significant disruption it would cause for families if kindergarten to Grade 6 students were sent home.

He said the request went to the education minister on Monday, and he's grateful the province quickly gave permission to go ahead.

Both the public and Catholic boards sent letters to parents advising them of the decision.

In an emailed statement, Edmonton Catholic Schools board chair Sandra Palazzo said her division saw a significant numbers of students and staff in isolation and also faces a shortage of substitute teachers. On Tuesday, the division had 50 unfilled staffing positions.

"We are hopeful that with the expanded vaccination process and this circuit breaker, we will be able to return to in-person learning for the remainder of the school year," Palazzo said. 

Growing list of school divisions

The Edmonton divisions join others across the province in sending home students in Grades 7 to 12. The Calgary Board of Education, Calgary Catholic School District, Fort McMurray Public School District and Fort McMurray Catholic Board of Education all shifted to online learning on Monday for a two-week break. 

At a news conference Tuesday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw cited moving upper grades to online learning as "targeted measures" the province has taken to try to slow climbing COVID-19 cases.

On Tuesday, 23 per cent of Alberta schools were experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks. 

A spokesperson for Alberta Education said boards experiencing operational challenges because of COVID-19 can submit their requests to temporarily shift to at-home learning, and the ministry makes such decisions based on four criteria:

  • A chronic substitute teacher shortage.
  • A significant number of students and staff in quarantine or isolation.
  • A board has made recent recent requests for short-term shifts for a number of its schools.
  • Substantial COVID-19 cases in the community.