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Concerns linger as Alberta announces return to school

Rear view of large group of students raising their arms to answer the question on a class at elementary school. (CREDIT: iStock @rdmbc)

ATA says they will be working alongside an infectious diseases specialist to provide information on COVID-19

The Alberta government, unlike many other provincial governments, has not had the discussion about reducing class sizes

A survey says 62 per cent of Canadians are worried about children going back to schools

CALGARY (CityNews) – The Alberta’s Teachers’ Association is calling for safety to be the number one priority as schools get ready to return in the fall.

Following an announcement by Premier Jason Kenny and Education Minister Adriana LaGrange regarding schools returning in the fall, ATA president Jason Schilling stressed the importance of maintaining safety measures for schools, staff, and students.

“Teachers are looking forward to doing the work they love to do with their students, but we remain concerned by the failure of the government to adequately address their concerns,” said Schilling in a statement. “Successful school reopening is critical to the well-being of students, teachers, staff, their families, and the economy, and it requires the confidence of everyone impacted.”

Schilling added the ATA still has many concerns after initial talks with the Alberta Government regarding a returning-to-school plan ended in June.

“Teachers just want the government to give us a fighting chance to make this work. We believe that with clear, supported measures schools could be a safe space for learning, but outstanding concerns need to be addressed before that can happen.”

CityNews spoke with an anonymous teacher who shared their concerns on the decision to return in the fall.

“I think it’s a misstep. Already we’ve seen COVID-19 numbers rise in Calgary. Schools are going to be one of the biggest avenues of transmission. Doesn’t matter what steps we take, the risk is still going to be high,” they told CityNews.

“I’m not particularly worried about getting the virus myself, but I’m almost certain that a school will have an outbreak and the CBE will have to shut down. I don’t feel safe about it.”

According to a Leger survey, 62 per cent of Canadians are worried about children going back to schools in the fall and believe that students should be required to wear a mask.

In the province’s announcement, masks were not deemed mandatory for staff and students when they make a return in the fall.

Schilling says the current mandate proposed by the Alberta government is that teachers will only have to wear a mask if they are going to be within two meters of someone for more than 15 minutes.

“I would always err on the side of caution. If the teacher is feeling that they need to wear a mask in class, then they should wear that mask in class,” he said.

“I also think that masks should be provided by Alberta Education and by the government and make sure everybody who wants a mask, has access to that within the school.”

READ MORE: Notley reacts to government’s back-to-school plan

The Canadian Union of Provincial Employees (CUPE) is sharing the concern made by teachers and the ATA.

“We believe–as in many other cases during this health crisis–the Alberta government is not putting the resources required towards the issues and concern,” said Rory Gill, President of CUPE Alberta.

“We’re concerned that when September rolls around and kids start going back to school that they’re not going to be as safe as they need to be.”

Gill said the proposed plan made by the Alberta government will see schools returning into nearly-normal conditions, meaning classes will be occupied with more students than the current number of people in an indoor space recommended by health officials.

Gill adds the Alberta government, unlike many other provincial governments, has not had the discussion about reducing class sizes or changing student schedules to try and decrease the spread of the virus.

“We’ve seen nothing so far that’s going to indicate to us that we are going to be able to maintain proper physical distancing.”

The ATA says they will be working alongside an infectious diseases specialist to provide information on the understanding of COVID-19 transmission risk within schools.

“Statements of broad principles are not sufficient. Districts and schools are not well-positioned to interpret or operationalize vague direction,” added Schilling. “Government needs to set and fund clear and specific mandates for risk mitigation.”

READ MORE: Parents look for answers ahead of school year

The Association is asking the province to focus on the following areas to prepare for a safe return to schools:
• Ensure control of COVID-19 transmission in Alberta’s communities in the weeks before school restart as a key measure of successful reopening
• Implement a robust fitness-for-school assessment regimen to ensure students and adults entering schools are not symptomatic and establish clear protocols and mechanisms for enforcement and for responding to people who become symptomatic at school
• Implement robust sick leave policies for schools and for all workplaces to support parents to stay home with students who may be symptomatic
• Mandate provisions for cohort students in the smallest feasible groups and, to the greatest degree possible, physical distancing in the classroom to limit the potential for widespread transmission in schools and support rapid contact tracing
• Provide resources required for frequent hand washing/sanitizing and ongoing cleaning of high-touch surfaces throughout the school day
• Enhance strategic COVID-19 testing in school settings and testing access protocol for teachers and other workers in schools
• Ensure that adequate substitute teacher coverage is in place to support appropriate immediate self-isolation with symptoms or upon risk exposure
• Develop detailed outbreak management plans for school
• Provide additional capital funding to support assessment and optimization of improved air handling and ventilation in schools on an expedited basis

The Alberta government also recently announced an additional $120-million in funding for school boards, however, the ATA says “that doesn’t account for the fact that they have $128-million less this year than the year before.”