Edmonton public schools preparing for abrupt move to online learning

School divisions were unprepared for the announcement that thousands of Alberta students would be temporarily vacating the classroom in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19, says Edmonton Public School Board chair Trisha Estabrooks.

Division not forewarned about new COVID-19 measures

Many classrooms will soon be empty as Grade 7 to Grade 12 students switch to online learning under new health measures announced by the province yesterday. (David Bajer/CBC)

School divisions were unprepared for the announcement that thousands of Alberta students would be temporarily vacating the classroom in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19, says Trisha Estabrooks, chair of the Edmonton Public School Board.

As announced by Premier Jason Kenney during a public briefing on Tuesday, students in Grade 7 to Grade 12 will move to online learning for three weeks starting Monday.

Estabrooks said school divisions received "not one inkling" of advance warning. The first time she heard about the measures was on Tuesday night, as the school board paused its regular public meeting to watch Kenney's news conference. 

Estabrooks said school divisions should have been forewarned about the changes.

"We learned about it at the same time the public did," Estabrooks said in an interview Wednesday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"We didn't get a heads up. We didn't get a quick phone call from the minister, saying, 'Hey, this is what's going to happen.'" 

Kenney described the new restrictions as a "bold and targeted" attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19, as Alberta reported a record 1,115 new cases of the disease and declared a public health emergency. 

"There's very limited transmission within the schools, but more community transmission is affecting the schools and their ability to operate," Kenney said Tuesday. 

"Teenagers are much more likely to transmit the virus than younger children. A longer period away from school for these older students will help to reduce broader community transmission." 

Trisha Estabrooks, Edmonton Public School Board chair, says the board could have better prepared for the changes but were given no warning about new restrictions for schools. (Dave Bajer/CBC)

Despite the lack of warning from government officials, Estabrooks said school administrators were quietly bracing for possible restrictions in the classroom. 

She said the changes ahead are daunting but the school board will be ready to welcome students online on Monday. 

More than 48,100 public school students are set to make the change.

"I think back to the situation we were in in the spring and ... that was a really quick, and really turbulent, pivot. We learned a lot," she said. 

"The reality is, we have something like 32,000 students already learning online. In a very short two months, Edmonton Public Schools has got the technology and got our teachers up to speed.

"I'm not going to say it's going to be completely smooth, but certainly I know that staff and administration have learned from the experiences of the last few months." 

I'm supportive of yesterday's decision, as tough as it is going to be.- Trisha Estabrooks

The change to online learning for junior-high and high-school students is among a series of new measures that will have an impact on Alberta classrooms.

Beginning Nov. 30, all students in Grades 7-12 will immediately transition to online learning until they begin their winter break. In-person learning for all students will be delayed a week until Jan. 11. Diploma exams are now optional for the rest of the school year. 

Estabrooks said she has no doubt the new measures are the "right decision."  Many Alberta schools are already nearing their breaking point. 

'A step in the right direction'

"I look at the trajectory of the number of cases and the burden that was being put on our teachers, our staff, our entire system over the last couple of weeks. And this absolutely is a step in the right direction.

"I'm supportive of yesterday's decision, as tough as it is going to be for all those thousands of junior-high and high-school students." 

A report from the Edmonton Public School Board on the impact of COVID-19 on the first quarter of the school year showed 10,500 students and 1,075 staff were recommended or required to self-isolate. Cases were found in 111 of the division's 215 schools.

Tuesday's public school board meeting was dominated by concerns over the spread of COVID-19 in local classrooms, a lack of detailed data on in-classroom transmission, and an apparent breakdown in the contact-tracing system in Alberta classrooms.

School symptoms 

Estabrooks said school finances are strained. Teachers, students and their families are exhausted.

Schools are seeing a "sharp increase" in the number of students and staff in isolation and that's put an added strain on staffing, she said.  

Last week alone, 3,000 students and 335 staff had been forced into isolation at home, Estabrooks said. On Tuesday, with substitute teachers in high demand, more than 100 teaching positions were left unfilled.

"That to me, is one of the one of the symptoms of how COVID-19 is really being reflected in our schools," she said. 

What the state of emergency means for students and schools. We'll speak with Edmonton Public Schools board chair Trisha Estabrooks. 6:31

More than 20,000 students in junior and senior high at local Catholic schools will also switch to online learning on Monday. 

In a statement to CBC News, the Edmonton Catholic School Division said it supports the premier's decision to move older students online and to make diploma exams optional. 

"In the past few weeks we have seen a steady increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in all levels, including junior and senior high," reads the statement, which will be sent to parents later Wednesday.

"While this increase mirrors the higher numbers of COVID cases in the community, it places additional pressures on staffing to ensure the continuity of learning for all students. 

"We agree that elementary students should remain in school as we are better able to serve our youngest learners.

"The extension of the Christmas break for students in kindergarten to Grade 12 may provide a necessary break in the transmission of COVID-19." 

Estabrooks urged Albertans to help contain the spread of the virus. She said community transmission is putting pressure on local classrooms. 

If the virus continues to escalate, students will continue to face disruptions in their education. 

"If we have any hope of sending our children back to in-person classes on Jan. 11, let's do our part," she said. 

"Let's listen to what was announced yesterday so that we can open these schools back up. Because, really, that is the best situation where we can have — students in person, with their friends, with their teachers."

'The writing's been on the wall'

Tara Madden, an Edmonton mother of two, said the province waited too long to act and students are paying the price. 

She said school administrators are doing their best in an impossible situation. 

"Like a lot of parents, I'm frustrated," Madden said. "What I'm hearing from governments is a lot of reaction after the fact. I think we could have seen some of this coming. And the pandemic response in general, particularly in relation to schools, has not been proactive.

"The writing's been on the wall for a while that we were headed into trouble." 

Madden's son, James, will be switching to online learning on Monday but the McNally High School student has been in and out of the classroom since the pandemic hit.

After taking online classes in the spring, he returned in-person learning in September. 

Within the month, he was forced into temporary quarantine after coming into close contact with a positive case at his school. 

Madden said online learning in the spring was difficult. She felt schools were operating in "survival mode."

She said the situation improved when classes resumed in the fall.  

"The schools had obviously worked extensively to get support systems in place so that if and when a shift was required, it could be done smoothly with minimal disruption to the students experience," she said. 

"And James is 15 years old; he's not the most enthusiastic student. But he came off his first days and said 'That was actually really good.' 

"These kids are super, super flexible. They've been so gracious about this whole situation. All of it's happening to them. They have no control over it. And what I've seen from students is more grace and flexibility than I'm saying for most adults."


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