Edmonton

Paintball and obstacle course businesses may supervise students learning online

Some students may bounce back into school work this fall in unexpected locations -- trampoline parks and laser tag courses.

Companies say their large spaces offer safe environments to study and play

Facility interior of InjaNation Fun & Fitness in Calgary. The company says it may offer supervised child care during school days this fall for parents who feel uncomfortable sending their children back to school during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Supplied by InjaNation Fun & Fitness Inc.)

Some students may bounce back into school work this fall in unexpected locations — trampoline parks and laser tag courses.

With some parents increasingly nervous about sending their children to school during the COVID-19 pandemic, some enterprising businesses with warehouse-sized spaces are offering an unconventional alternative.

Rachael McIntosh, marketing co-ordinator for Calgary's InjaNation, said the business is exploring the idea of supervising students during school days when classes resume in September.

Parents could return to work, children would be exposed to much smaller groups of people and the kids could burn off energy in the 55,000-square-foot facility's trampoline park and obstacle courses, she said.

"The whole idea of this is to offer a safe option to parents who need it," she said. "It's not to make money. It's not to go against the school."

Students would register in the distance learning option at their usual school, then bring a laptop or portable device to InjaNation, she said. There, staff would supervise them and tutors would come in to help with any questions they have about their online lessons.

If they follow the model used for summer camps, the business would group the kids into cohorts of nine and keep the groups separate, she said. It would give children the opportunity to socialize in a larger space.

Although the company is still sorting out the details, McIntosh said they're looking at charging between $1,000 and $1,200 a month per student.

Laser City, which runs spacious laser tag and paintball facilities in Edmonton and Calgary, is considering a similar offering, co-owner Rob Davy said on Tuesday.

Through trade associations, he saw similar businesses in the U.S. offering the service. Some schools in that country resume classes in August.

Davy said his 17,000-square-foot locations could accommodate about 30 elementary students on weekdays. After talking to parents who enrolled their children in online summer camps with Laser City, Davy said many feel unsafe sending their children back to school while COVID-19 continues to spread.

"We're not at all pretending that we are teachers," he said. "We're not trying to replace the teachers or anything like that. We are trying to give the assistance that parents would be giving."

Davy said students would have to be registered in online learning with their usual school. The business does not want public schools to lose any funding, he said.

Parents also tell him they think their children will be more co-operative with online learning when someone else is supervising them.

Programs not endorsed by Alberta Education

Advocacy group Support Our Students Alberta (SOS) brought attention to the phenomenon of private school supervision by posting some program advertisements on social media on Monday.

Colin Aitchison, press secretary to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said businesses offering alternative locations for students to participate in online learning are not endorsed by Alberta Education.

"Public, separate, independent and charter schools are required to follow our robust school re-entry plan and its accompanying public health guidelines, and we would encourage parents to have their students either attend Alberta schools in person or participate in their distance learning programs from a safe learning environment that parents have confidence in, such as their homes," Aitchison said in a Tuesday statement.

NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said she's unsurprised businesses are being innovative to offer options as parents balance their careers with concerns about their children's safety.

She said the offerings prove there are spaces available, in businesses, libraries, churches and community centres, that the government could use to better space out students and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"Why don't we actually take the little thread of what they're offering, which is more safety and abiding by what are currently the recommendations of the chief medical officer of health, and find ways to make that accessible for all students, not just those whose parents have thousands of dollars that they can afford to pay every month," Hoffman said.

Mock classroom shows challenge of distancing

On Tuesday, Hoffman held a press conference in Edmonton's Federal Building, where the Opposition created a mock classroom to demonstrate the challenges of physically distancing students in schools.

Education critic Sarah Hoffman staged this demonstration, showing what classrooms could look like in the fall if classes are not capped. 1:41

Provincial standards say new classrooms should be built with 80 square metres of usable space to accommodate students and furniture. With desks and tables for 30 students arranged in a taped-off area, the desks were less than one metre apart.

Public health guidelines say people should stay at least two metres away from others to prevent spreading COVID-19.

The UCP government has allotted $10 million for reusable masks, hand sanitizer and other protective equipment for schools. School boards should use savings in reserves to pay for any additional needs to adapt to the pandemic, the education minister has said.

The government has said its school re-opening plan is endorsed by Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw and the College of Alberta School Superintendents.

Aitchison called the NDP's mock classroom a "stunt" and said the Opposition's competing school plan is unfeasible.

Class sizes in Alberta have risen steadily during the last 15 years. Some teachers report 40 or more students in some of their core high school classes.

A mock up classroom put together by the Opposition NDP shows desks for 30 students in an 80 square metre classroom are less than a metre apart. The mock classroom did not include shelves, a teacher's desk or other furniture. Public health recommendations say people should stay at least two metres apart to prevent transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Edmonton junior high teacher Renee Englot said she has 35 students registered in her Grade 9 class next year, and her room is smaller than 80 square metres.

"I worry that students and parents and members of the public in general may have a false impression of what school's going to look like in September because the government keeps using the term physical distancing," she said. "It is impossible to physically distance in a classroom without a cap on class size."

Heather Quinn, president of Edmonton Public Teachers local 37, also called on the government to invest more money into re-opening schools. Class sizes should be capped for student and staff safety, and boards need more money to pay more teachers, caretakers and buy protective equipment and cleaning supplies, she said.

"COVID-19 is a public health problem in public education that requires a public solution," she said.

About the Author

Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also been a reporter at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca

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