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'A frank and informative meeting': ATA suggests pushing back school restart in talk with government

Last Updated Aug 20, 2020 at 6:30 am MDT

EDMONTON (660 NEWS) — In an over hour-long chat at the Legislature in Edmonton, the Alberta Teachers Association was able to bring forward specific concerns about the school restart directly to the Minister of Education.

“The minister listened to our concerns, and I feel that she has a better understanding of them now than she did before,” said ATA President Jason Schilling after the meeting wrapped up Wednesday afternoon.

Schilling said Minister Adriana LaGrange and her staff were attentive and took lots of notes, as he brought forward several different issues that teachers have been bringing forward ever since the Alberta Government announced classes would resume as normal in September.

This included concerns about class sizes and how to ensure physical distancing, COVID-19 testing, funding for enhanced equipment such as PPE and HVAC systems, safety for substitute teachers, and more.

But the most important suggestion to be brought forward was suggesting that the start of class be pushed back by at least another week.

“We suggested a total delay of students until after Labour Day,” said Schilling.

At that point, schools that are ready to reopen can start accepting students and other schools that may need a little more time to prepare can do so.

Schilling said no decisions have been made yet, though he is hopeful some news will come forward in the near future.

“They need to go back and consider what we said, they will need to talk to other organizations such as school boards and superintendents about this idea of pushing back the start of the school year. I expect they will work on these seriously over the next couple of days,” he added.

While Minister LaGrange has said they are acting on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, Schilling brought up the point that they need to reconcile the specific challenges in reopening schools amid a pandemic.

“We’re taking a medical plan that has been put forward from the Chief Medical Officer of Health and trying to make it an educational plan,” he said.

On the discussion of class sizes, Schilling said there was “no conclusive discussion” on how reducing sizes would work, and it boils down to providing more funding to allow for more space. In addition, Schilling suggested they could rehire some teachers and educational assistants who were laid off earlier in the year to help ease the strain in some certain hotspots.

There was a lot of talk about how to keep substitute teachers safe, especially as they may be moving between different buildings through the year, and Schilling said there will have to be some discussion with public health experts around that matter.

With some schools likely needing upgrades to ventilation and HVAC systems, Schilling said they do need experts to come in and do an audit to determine what is specifically needed. In the meantime, they could also purchase portable air filtration systems that will serve as a short-term band-aid.

While there were not any firm decisions made at this point, Schilling was happy that this discussion happened and that there seemed to be a clear intent on the part of the government to listen.

“We put everything on the table,” Schilling said.

“I would much rather be over-prepared than under-prepared for the start of the year.”