Alberta school districts not allowed to shut down in-school learning despite high absenteeism

New regulations mean Alberta’s school divisions will not be allowed to shut down in-school learning despite high absenteeism from respiratory illness outbreaks.

The province said students and parents are “guaranteed” access to in-person learning starting Thursday, and students cannot be denied in-person learning by their school authorities because of their decision to wear a mask or not.

School districts must also continue to offer courses and “preserve the integrity of educational programming,” whether in person or at home.

Read more: Alberta’s top doctor warns parents about concerning, ‘severe’ flu season

These changes will apply to grades 1-12 in all school settings, including public and independent schools. In a news release on Thursday afternoon, the UCP government said the change will create an inclusive environment and will respect personal and family choices.

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This comes after Alberta’s new chief medical officer of health Dr. Mark Joffe warned parents about a flu season that could be “more severe than we have seen in years.”

Alberta Health reported 3,648 lab-confirmed cases of influenza and 550 hospitalizations on Thursday, including the second pediatric influenza death this season.

Click to play video: 'Flu cases on the rise in Alberta'

Flu cases on the rise in Alberta

“Parents and students have told me time and time again that they want a normal school environment for their kids,” Premier Danielle Smith said in a statement. “With that in mind, we have taken steps to protect and enhance educational choice.

“Families are free to make their own personal health decisions, and, no matter what that decision is, it will be supported by Alberta’s education system.”

The government also said the new regulations will minimize potential learning loss. According to Thursday’s release, literacy assessments showed around 70,000 at-risk students in grades 1-3 were 11 months behind grade level at the start of the 2021-2022 school year after 17 months of at-home learning.

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Read more: Young child among 6 Albertans who have died of influenza this season

The government also said the average learning loss dropped to 3.7 months after assessment results from May to June 2022, when students returned to in-person learning.

“I have heard from parents and students that they would like stability, and from school boards that they would like clarity,” Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said in a statement.

“Securing a face-to-face classroom environment means students can continue to learn successfully while allowing their parents to go to work. It will also help to maintain and improve student mental health while minimizing student learning loss.”

Click to play video: 'RSV, other respiratory illnesses pressuring Alberta Children’s Hospital staff and wait times'

RSV, other respiratory illnesses pressuring Alberta Children’s Hospital staff and wait times

Education critic Sarah Hoffman criticized the government’s move, saying LaGrange and Smith have “no clue” about what’s happening in Alberta schools.

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“We know that respiratory illness outbreaks have been widespread this fall, causing intense stress and increased challenges for students, staff, and families. School districts are struggling to staff classrooms as illness moves through students and employees,” Hoffman said in an emailed statement.

“It is totally unrealistic to expect that school districts can staff in-person and online classes simultaneously with no additional resources. They are struggling to staff schools already given UCP cuts in the last budget.”

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