Government action needed to help support schools as COVID-19 cases rise: ATA president

EDMONTON — As the number of COVID-19 cases rise in Alberta schools, so do the number of students learning from home.

The province says keeping students learning in-person is a priority for them. Critics say more needs to be done to support teachers and staff so that students can have safe in-person learning.

As of Thursday, there were active alerts or outbreaks in 478 schools across the province.

All Grade 7 to 12 students in both the Calgary Board of Education and Calgary Catholic School District will shift temporarily to online learning on Monday for two weeks.

More than 6,700 Calgary students and staff are in isolation as of Wednesday.

Both Catholic and public district junior and high schools in Fort McMurray will also transition to online delivery until April 30.

Several Edmonton area schools including Leduc Composite High School, FR Haythorne Junior High, and Sherwood Heights Junior High will move online for two weeks.

Elk Island Public Schools signalled in a statement Wednesday there is a “possibility” that the district will need to transition students in specific grades or schools to online learning temporarily “in the near future” because of rising numbers of students and staff in quarantine.

Elk Island Public Schools officials say approximately 980 students and 100 staff are currently in quarantine.

“With such high numbers of students and staff quarantining, regular school operations are becoming increasingly challenging,” Elk Island Public Schools Superintendent Mark Liguori said in a statement.

STILL A CHANCE FOR MEANINGFUL LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES: HOFFMAN

A statement from the Ministry of Education said that they continually work with school districts to ensure they are supported throughout the pandemic.

“The province continues to work closely with school boards to support students and families,” the ministry said.

The province expanded in-school rapid COVID-19 screening and testing to help curb the number of cases found in classrooms. The program would help up to 300 junior and senior high schools in Calgary, Edmonton, Lethbridge, and Grande Prairie.

Yet, critics say more needs to be done.

Sarah Hoffman, NDP education critic, told CTV News Edmonton in an interview that the province must do more to help keep students and staff safe.

“There’s still a few months left in the school year,” Hoffman said. “We can still have meaningful learning opportunities if we step up and take this seriously instead of making excuses.”

Hoffman suggested the province give districts more money so they can hire more staff to be substitute teachers. That way class sizes can remain small to limit exposures and keep learning engagement high.

Jason Schilling, Alberta Teachers’ Association president agreed — especially since some older substitute teachers have chosen not to work this year due to COVID-19 risks.

Schilling added that other substitute teachers are afraid to work because they are worried they would not be covered if they were exposed to or got sick with COVID-19.

“School boards and government could provide income and benefits security for them,” he told CTV News Edmonton in an interview. “Put them on contract so that they have that security in case they should happen to become ill and then they’re taken care of during that time.”

Extra cleaning and contact tracing staff could also be hired, Schilling said.

For Schilling, giving teachers access to COVID-19 vaccines would be one of the most effective ways to help ensure safe in-person learning.

Ultimately, some kind of action needs to happen Schilling says, otherwise, schools will not be able to remain open in-person.

“We actually have to have government do some action,” he said. “They’ve made schools being open a priority during the pandemic. They need to make the staff and the students within those buildings a priority as well.

“They’re comfortable with the plan that they have in place even though we’re seeing rising cases within our schools.”

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