What you need to know as Edmonton area schools resume this week

Some schools in Alberta are set to return to in-person classrooms this week — here's what you need to know.

Some divisions have opted to delay start of classes

A classroom prepared for the new school year at Lillian Osborne High School in southwest Edmonton. (David Bajer/CBC)

Many students will be returning to in-person classes this week but it will be unlike any first day any parent has ever experienced.

With a proliferation of new protocols and measures, it can be tough to keep track of what the new school year will be like under the pandemic. Here are some highlights to keep you informed.

So who is going back and when?

Many school divisions across Alberta will be starting up again this week. Edmonton Catholic Schools will have its first day of school on Sept. 2 with Edmonton public following the next day.

St. Albert public returns on Aug. 31 while Sturgeon Public and Elk Island Public schools return on Sept. 1.

However, not all students may not be present for the first official day of school — some divisions are staggering class start dates. And although classes are resuming, it doesn't necessarily mean everyone will be back for in-person learning.

Students have also been offered online alternatives. About 64,000 Edmonton public students will be back in class, while another 26,000 have opted for online learning in September.

Other divisions won't be back in school just yet. In mid-August, the Alberta Teachers' Association asked the province to delay the start of school. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said that decision was up to individual boards.

Some took that opportunity, including the Black Gold School Division south of Edmonton. Its students will now return to classes a week later than the original start date of Sept. 1.

Why are some divisions delaying re-entry?

Some divisions have opted to delay re-entry to give teachers and staff more time to prepare for a radically different learning environment.

"We are hearing and seeing the anxiety levels of our principals and our staff, and we are very, very well aware of anxiety being one of those things that has a ripple effect," Black Gold board chair Devonna Klaassen said last week.

The Peace River School Division is also among those that have pushed back its first day to Sept. 8, saying the delay will give staff more time to become familiar with new safety protocols.

What's the 'quarterly semester' system?

A quarterly semester system is being implemented in many high schools, including those of the Edmonton public and Catholic divisions.

The alternative schedule will allow students to power through courses within a couple of months before writing exams, then switch to the next few subjects. Typically a secondary school year would be split into two semesters.

More semesters equates to fewer courses at a time, which is expected to mean less mingling and easier contact tracing should an outbreak occur.

The shortened semesters also give students the opportunity to pivot between in-person and online learning — and the school to do so on a larger scale should they need to.

If a family chooses to switch midway through a quarter, options may be limited. 

Edmonton public's latest re-entry plan allows for students to stop attending in-person classes and receive homework from that teacher before being reassigned the following quarter to a fully online class with a new teacher.

A student going from online to in-person learning can only make the switch at the start of a new quarter.

Edmonton Catholic only identifies the four points between semesters to make the switch.

How will schools fight the spread of COVID-19?

Hygiene will be a big focus, through heightened cleaning protocols and regular, thorough hand-washing or hand-sanitizer use for students and staff. 

Students and staff will be expected to go through a health assessment checklist before entering schools each day.

The provincial guidelines call for distancing when possible, but say that's not possible in many situations. 
At Muriel Martin Elementary School in St. Albert, directional arrows and keep-right signs have been applied to the hallway floors. (Craig Ryan/CBC)

Teachers have been asked to reorganize classrooms with distance in mind, create cohorts of students by class when possible, guide foot traffic in hallways and doors and avoid large gatherings like assemblies. 

Staggered start, end and lunch times may also come into effect as a way to keep hallways and common spaces from getting too crowded between classes.

Students in Grades 4 to 12 and school staff will be required to wear masks when physical distancing is not possible, such as in hallways, common areas and when working closely with others

Younger children will be encouraged to wear masks when possible.

What is a cohort anyway?

A COVID-19 cohort is conceived as a small group of the same people who interact regularly without staying two metres apart. Under Stage 2 of Alberta's relaunch strategy, core cohorts are limited to a household and up to 15 other people.

Alberta's chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw updates the province on the COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday. (CBC)

"In a school context the cohort is really the classroom. We also have daycare cohorts, and sports team and performance cohorts, with the idea being you try to limit that total number of people you're with," Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said during a Q&A last month.

Students will remain with their cohort throughout their learning and recess activities.

There has been little guidance from the province on how a 15-person cohort might be maintained in the classroom setting without capping class sizes.

What constitutes an outbreak at a school?

One confirmed case of COVID-19 at a school would trigger an Alberta Health Services (AHS) investigation. Two cases would trigger an outbreak response.

If two or more cases are confirmed within a given school, a letter will be sent to guardians and contact tracing will begin.

Public health officials will inform the school administration when the outbreak is declared over.

What does close contact mean?

When a student, teacher, or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, AHS will identify everyone that person had close contact with and outline steps forward, including isolation measures.

Hinshaw has defined close contact as "anyone who has been within two metres of a case for a cumulative total of more than 15 minutes in a day without adequate protection."

"There may be many classmates therefore who would be close contacts if a case was at school while infectious," she said last week.

A student who had been in close contact with a positive case would need to isolate, being watched for symptoms and ideally not having close contact with other family members for 14 days.

When would a school close?

No guideline has been set for the number of cases that would automatically lead to the closure of a school.

"I know this may cause concern for parents and teachers who might prefer a single number to watch for," Hinshaw said last week. "I assure you teams at Alberta Health Services, Alberta Health and Alberta Education will monitor the situation in schools very closely.

"We are not pre-determining specific triggers for school closure. This close monitoring will be used to detect any early signs of concerns that will inform ongoing evaluation of our public health advice and school renter plan."

With files from Stephanie Dubois


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