Confusion hits back-to-school plans
Parents, teachers raise concerns as province ponders ways forward
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.”
Calgary Board of Education chair Marilyn Dennis says school with social distancing still in place would be “very challenging.”