Con­fu­sion hits back-to-school plans

Par­ents, teach­ers raise con­cerns as prov­ince pon­ders ways for­ward

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - EVA FER­GU­SON

As K-12 stu­dents look to­ward their eighth week of on­line learning, con­fu­sion and con­cern are grow­ing over when and how stu­dents will re­turn to the class­room in Cal­gary and other parts of Alberta.

Premier Ja­son Kenney an­nounced his “re­launch” strat­egy Thurs­day, start­ing to re­open Alberta over the next few weeks pend­ing con­trolled num­bers of new COVID-19 cases. But in­con­sis­ten­cies and un­cer­tainty re­main about when or how schools would re­open be­fore next fall.

With restau­rants, small busi­nesses and hair sa­lons get­ting the OK to re­open by May 14, Kenney said school boards es­sen­tially de­cided when schools closed that they would re­main closed for the du­ra­tion of this aca­demic year.

But then Kenney added the prov­ince is con­sid­er­ing al­low­ing some schools or spe­cialty pro­grams to open be­fore or dur­ing the sum­mer months.

“We are in dis­cus­sions to al­low some lim­ited re­open­ings on a trial ba­sis, maybe sum­mer school or some spe­cial­ized pro­grams,” said Kenney, al­though he would not say which schools or in which ar­eas of the prov­ince.

“We are also look­ing at whether later in the sum­mer we could bring school back a bit ear­lier, but that’s only based on con­sul­ta­tion with school boards.”

But Mar­i­lyn Den­nis, chair of the Cal­gary Board of Ed­u­ca­tion, said there have not been any de­tailed dis­cus­sions on an early re­turn or how a re­turn to school might look, par­tic­u­larly in Cal­gary where many schools are full.

“As long as so­cial dis­tanc­ing is in place, for us, it would be very chal­leng­ing to have kids come back to school.”

With some re­gions in Canada sched­uled to re­turn el­e­men­tary stu­dents to class­rooms — in­clud­ing parts of Que­bec within two weeks — par­ents and ed­u­ca­tors in Cal­gary are ask­ing when the Alberta govern­ment will at least start hav­ing an open dis­cus­sion around how schools might re­open safely.

“This is a re­ally im­por­tant con­ver­sa­tion. It im­pacts all of us, our chil­dren’s health and our fam­ily’s health. So when are we go­ing to start hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion? And when are we as par­ents go­ing to be part of that con­ver­sa­tion,” asked Barb Silva, spokes­woman for the Sup­port Our Stu­dents provincewi­de ad­vo­cacy group.

“This af­fects us. This af­fects our lives. Yet no one is talk­ing about it and what a re­turn to school might look like here.”

Que­bec Premier Fran­cois Le­gault said this week that el­e­men­tary school stu­dents can re­turn to classes May 11 in re­gions out­side of Mon­treal, with the greater Mon­treal area to fol­low suit May 19.

Some parts of the United States are also al­low­ing stu­dents to re­turn to school, in­clud­ing Mon­tana, which is wel­com­ing stu­dents back May 7.

Mean­while, stu­dents in some parts of Ger­many are in classes al­ready, with desks about two me­tres apart.

But while the con­sen­sus is that Cal­gary schools most likely won’t re­open this school year, crit­ics ques­tion whether a sys­tem that is al­ready over­crowded and un­der­funded will be able to meet so­cial dis­tanc­ing re­quire­ments to keep kids and staff safe.

“What this pan­demic has high­lighted is some­thing we’ve al­ready known, our schools are very crowded and we may not have the fund­ing to keep them clean,” Silva said, adding that most schools only have one ded­i­cated care­taker who would strug­gle to keep build­ings and touch points clean.

At the same time, many are itch­ing for a re­turn to school, as stu­dents miss teach­ers, teach­ers miss stu­dents, and par­ents are in­creas­ingly over­whelmed with work­ing from home and sup­port­ing kids in on­line learning.

“Par­ents are re­al­iz­ing it’s very dif­fi­cult be­ing a teacher, even with their own kids,” said Bob Cock­ing, pres­i­dent of the Alberta Teach­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion Lo­cal 38 rep­re­sent­ing pub­lic school teach­ers.

“But it’s been hard on the kids, too, the lack of so­cial in­ter­ac­tion. That has been a real hard­ship and will be even harder if kids aren’t back by the fall. I re­ally don’t want to see this con­tinue.”

Cock­ing says as unions meet with staff, who are in reg­u­lar con­tact with par­ents, some in­no­va­tive ideas are be­ing bandied about to re­duce health risks once kids come back to school.

That may in­clude stag­gered at­ten­dance, hav­ing half the kids at­tend­ing on some days with the other half com­ing in on other days.

“That might al­low us to move desks far­ther apart, and maybe have a less-crowded class in some schools.”

It’s also pos­si­ble to have high school stu­dents re­main at home to con­tinue on­line learning, while younger stu­dents fill high school build­ings with ex­tra room to so­cially dis­tance.

Teach­ers would have to be pro­vided with per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment such as masks to re­duce their risk, Cock­ing adds.

And older teach­ers at greater risk may also be pro­vided with mod­i­fi­ca­tions to their du­ties, al­low­ing them to do ad­min­is­tra­tive work from home, while younger staff work with kids.

Colin Aitchison, press sec­re­tary for Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Adri­ana

Lagrange, con­firmed the prov­ince is hav­ing on­go­ing con­ver­sa­tions about what school might look like once it re­opens, but no de­tails are yet avail­able.

“We are cur­rently con­sult­ing with part­ners in the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem, in­clud­ing par­ents, about what a back-to-school plan could look like,” Aitchison said.

“But it is still very early days and the min­is­ter will com­mu­ni­cate any de­ci­sions that are made at the ear­li­est pos­si­ble op­por­tu­nity.”

Brandi Rai, pres­i­dent of the Alberta School Coun­cils’ As­so­ci­a­tion, said her group, which rep­re­sents par­ents across the prov­ince, sat at the ta­ble with the ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter last week but few specifics were dis­cussed.

“There are mul­ti­ple sce­nar­ios and a lot of in­no­va­tive ideas for a re­turn to school,” Rai said, adding that con­cepts such as stag­gered at­ten­dance and so­cial dis­tanc­ing will be con­sid­ered.

“But we want to put the safety of staff and stu­dents as our No. 1 pri­or­ity.”

Bryan Szum­las, chief su­per­in­ten­dent for the Cal­gary Catholic School Dis­trict, said that while the school division has not yet reached out to par­ents about what re­open­ing would look like, he hopes to do that soon.

“At this point, we haven’t had any de­tailed con­ver­sa­tions with our par­ents. But as we go for­ward, I will be look­ing for their feed­back. I re­ally want to make them part of that con­ver­sa­tion.

“I think every­one wants to see kids back in schools. We are all so­cial be­ings ... But we have to be very cau­tious, we have to do this very care­fully.”

AZIN GHAFFARI

Cal­gary Board of Ed­u­ca­tion chair Mar­i­lyn Den­nis says school with so­cial dis­tanc­ing still in place would be “very chal­leng­ing.”

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