COVID-19: School board chair says she got no ‘heads up’ from Alberta government about new measures impacting schools

EDITOR’S NOTE: With regard to the dates mentioned in this article, the Alberta government acknowledges that schools in the province have different winter break schedules. Parents and students are advised to check with their school for details.

The chair of the Edmonton Public School Board says the first time she learned Alberta’s grade 7 to 12 students would be moving to at-home learning was when Premier Jason Kenney held a news conference Tuesday afternoon to announce new measures at curbing the spread of COVID-19 in the province.

“To be clear, school divisions were not given a heads up about this announcement from the provincial government,” Trisha Estabrooks tweeted Tuesday night. “Not one inkling.

“This is a massive change, and the Edmonton Public School Board can do it — we will be ready to welcome grade 7-12 (students) online… but a heads up would have been nice.”

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READ MORE: Alberta enacts 2nd COVID-19 state of public health emergency. Here’s what it means 

The provincial government is bringing in a wide array of new public health measures as the number of COVID-19 cases in Alberta continues to rise sharply this month. For schools, the new measures mean junior high and high school students will move to at-home learning on Nov. 30. Once they return from their holiday break, students will continue to be required to learn at home until Jan. 8.

Diploma exams are now optional for the remainder of the school year.

For children in kindergarten and up to Grade 6, in-person learning will continue until students take their winter break but they will move to at-home learning from Jan. 4 to Jan. 8.

Kenney said older students will move to at-home learning soon because they pose a higher risk for coronavirus transmission. He added that COVID-19 cases in schools had put pressure on staffing and negatively impacted students’ quality of education.

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“Rising cases in our workplaces and homes, driven disproportionately by the social gatherings, means that we are seeing rising cases in schools as well,” the premier said, noting, however, that there is little evidence of transmission in schools.

READ MORE: About 8,000 Calgary students, staff in isolation as COVID-19 pandemic rages on

“We learned of these new measures this afternoon and will share more information as the details are confirmed,” a spokesperson for the Calgary Board of Education told Global News when asked for comment on the new measures.

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In a statement sent to Global News on Tuesday night, the Edmonton Catholic School Division (ECSD) said it supports the decision to move students to online learning until early in the new year.

“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,” the ECSD said. “While this increase mirrors the higher numbers of COVID-19 cases in the community, it places additional pressures on staffing to ensure the continuity of learning for all students.

“We are pleased that diploma exams will be optional for the remainder of the school year as this supports our high school students who are considering post-secondary applications and will now be less adversely affected by the impact of COVID-19.”

The ECSD added that it agrees with keeping younger students in class to better help them learn and in order to help make it easier for parents to be able to work.

“We will now redeploy some of our dedicated substitute teachers to our elementary schools for more specialized and targeted instruction,” the school board said. “The extension of the Christmas break for students in kindergarten to Grade 12 may provide a necessary break in the transmission of COVID-19.”

A spokesperson for the Calgary Catholic School District said the school board would not be commenting on the measures Tuesday as it was still reviewing them and assessing what impact the measures will have on its schools.

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The president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association issued a statement that noted teachers have expressed concern about the spike in COVID-19 cases in the province and the effect that is having on schools.

“We support the direction taken by government to move to a combination of in-school and at-home learning that will allow schooling to continue in a safer environment,” Jason Schilling said. “The association has outlined eight actions for keeping students, staff and families safe, and these are now particularly relevant for elementary schools where in-person learning continues.

“We are counting on government to monitor and assess the success of the measures introduced today as the situation continues to evolve. As the president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, I am immensely proud of my colleagues across the province as they continue to respond with creativity and deep personal commitment to meeting the needs of their students.”

Opposition Leader Rachel Notley noted that schools are seeing many COVID-19 cases and as a result, staff and students being forced to isolate. She suggested the Kenney government should have implemented the plan the NDP introduced in the summer, which called for smaller class sizes.

“Now their 11th-hour solution is to rip hundreds of thousands of teenagers out of school in the middle of their second term,” Notley said in a news conference. “We’re hearing today that no one’s actually talked to school boards, yet again.

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“This government has learned nothing from the chaos that they caused in the spring.”

A Calgary doctor who spoke to Global News on Tuesday said he supports the government’s new measures with regard to schools but would have liked to have seen further commitments be made.

“We know now that teenagers transmit the virus about as well as adults but the younger kids probably don’t,” Raj Bhardwaj said.

“But you know, I would have liked to have seen the province say, ‘OK, and in the time that the schools are closed — with all this extra time — we’re going to maybe support the schools by implementing greater ventilation or different programs so that we can reduce the spread’ — or somehow funding them so that we can have smaller class sizes so that when they do go back, they’re not just jumping back into the fire, so to speak.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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