Students and teachers will be returning to in-person learning on Monday.
Heading to classrooms as well will be medical-grade masks and rapid tests. These are expected to arrive at schools at the end of next week, said Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange during a Wednesday Covid update.
The province had delayed the return to school for a week in the face of rising Omicron variant cases.
“Understandably, school authorities were concerned about issues such as staff absences, not only for teachers, but also for the many other Albertans who support our students, such as bus drivers, teaching assistants, support staff and administration,” said Minister LaGrange.
Minister LaGrange justified the return to school based on what she said was the current health data, and what our jurisdictions are doing for their schools.
“Take New York City for example, where students spent last year learning online instead of in-person this year. They are very determined to remain in the classroom,” she said.
New York State has limited in-school sporting and high-risk activities to vaccinated students, and universal masking is required for all staff and students when in school.
Currently, Alberta does not limit student activity based on vaccination status. It requires masks for students in Grade 4 and up.
Other provinces in Canada have extended their returns to school from mid to late January.
Balanced approach says CMOH
Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said that closing schools would cause greater harm to students than the potential risk of infection from Covid-19.
“There are no perfect completely risk-free solutions available to us or any jurisdiction around the world,” she said.
“I believe the provincial approach balances the many competing risks that our children face. The use of rapid testing and medical masks in addition to the measures already in place will help to protect students and staff as they return to the classroom.”
Dr. Hinshaw said that returning to classrooms could provide a sense of normalcy, stability, and improved mental well-being for students.
Minister LaGrange said that the province has looked at the detrimental effects of prolonged online learning.
“There’s numerous data across not only Canada, but across the world that is highlighting that, and we will certainly share that data as you know, as we are able,” she said.
The Minister did not elaborate on what those sources were.
Classrooms could still go online
Dr. Hinshaw said that if there was significant transmission in a local area, that students in these areas could move online.
Minister LaGrange said that school divisions would have the flexibility to move to short-term online learning based on student or staff absences.
Dr. Hinshaw emphasized that parents would need to balance the risks versus returning to school for their own families.
“Every family needs to make the right decision for their own situations knowing that community transmission will continue to be high over at least the next month,” she said.
“The current approach balances the risks all our children face, and each family will need to weigh the impacts of those risks, for them.”
She recommended that all students regardless of grade, including kindergarten, wear masks. She also asked parents to get their children vaccinated as soon as possible.
“I want to remind Albertans that we’re in a very different situation today than we were when school started the past fall this past fall or the year before. That’s thanks to widely available safe, effective vaccines and the 1000s of staff and students who’ve been immunized for COVID-19.”
Dr. Hinshaw said that going forward, contact tracing for cases in schools would no longer be performed by AHS. Students and teachers would still receive notifications of positive PCR testing. With contact tracing in long-term care and health care settings, there was insufficient capacity to do contact tracing in schools.
“Alberta is assessing different options for an approach to school reporting that reflects the current situation. Details on this will be shared as soon as they’re available,” she said.
ATA asks for more than masks and tests
Alberta Teacher’s Association President Jason Schilling wanted more for classrooms than medical-grade masks and rapid tests.
He asked for the province to make masks universally mandated for all grades. They also want to employ strict isolation periods with clear guidelines, and to provide HEPA filtration for classrooms.
“The Premier says that they’re doing everything they can to keep kids in school, and it’s just simply not true,” he said.
Schilling also took aim at the Premier’s comments about the costs of N-95 masks versus medical grade masks made at yesterday’s provincial Covid-19 update.
“We’re talking about our students, and the people who work in our schools, and we’re going to debate pennies and dollars on how much it costs to bring in those masks while people are sitting on millions of dollars in reserves?” he said.
He was also concerned that staffing would become an issue in schools.
“We should expect that with the transmissibility of this variant, that there will be outbreaks in schools and the availability of teachers and other staff will be a significant concern.”
Schilling called on local school authorities to hire more substitute teachers on contract to address these expected teacher shortages.
The Opposition Alberta NDP also said these health measures were inadequate.
“It’s truly bizarre to hear Dr. Hinshaw tell Albertans that community transmission has never been higher at any point and that we must all reduce our daily contacts and then see the UCP send kids back to school without any of the protection that other Canadian students are receiving,” said NDP MLA and education critic Sarah Hoffman.
Minister says no to return to work from isolation for teachers
Minister LaGrange said that the province was not currently considering using the province’s return to work provision for teachers.
She said that schools had substitutes available, and shorter isolation periods would help mitigate staff shortages. She said that individual school boards would be responsible for their staffing levels.
“I’ve heard that there were some school divisions that have early absences of around 5 per cent,” she said.
“I also want to remind everyone that now with Omicron, that the isolation period after testing positive with Omicron is five days.”
The shorter, five-day isolation period only applies to asymptomatic Covid patients. Patients with symptoms would be required to isolate for the full 10 day period.
Schilling said he would have concerns if teachers would be brought back early from isolation into classrooms. But the ATA didn’t know what that would look like if it were to occur.
“I would hate to see that we would get into some sort of situation where people would then feel pressured to do this, and that would not bode well for everybody,” he said.
Tutoring resources to be made available for students
A tutoring hub for Grades 4 through 9 will be launched next week, according to Minister LaGrange.
The hub will have pre-recorded videos for numeracy and literacy skills that can be accessed at any time.
“This will help them catch up on important skills and learn in learning that they may have fallen behind on during the pandemic,” she said.
Later in the school year, the province plans on adding tutoring in more subjects for more grade levels. These are planned to include live tutoring sessions.
Minister LaGrange did not indicate a date when this would become available. It’s also unclear who would be providing the live tutoring sessions.