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A empty classroom is pictured at Eric Hamber Secondary school in Vancouver on Monday, March 23, 2020.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

A small group of protesters joined a province-wide rally outside the offices of UCP MLAs to demand more funding and improved safety measures for students returning to class this fall.

In Fort McMurray, a handful of people gathered outside the office of Tany Yao, UCP MLA for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo. Another 27 small protests took place in other ridings.

“I’ve grown up here, I graduated from high school here and I’m worried about teachers and staff,” said Una Rhoddy, a Fort McMurray resident who helped organize the local protest.

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“If I can come out and advocate for necessary transitions to happen, then it’s my duty to advocate for those who aren’t being listened to.”

Protester Christopher Whelan was demanding the rehiring of hundreds of educational assistants that were laid off in March.

Whelan, who is on the autism spectrum, is a member of Neurodiversity YMM. The group is made up of people with neurodiverse conditions, such as autism, ADHD or OCD.

Whelan says educational assistants are vital for students with neurological disabilities such as himself.

“I had educational assistants that were helping me get through school and now I have two bachelor’s degrees,” he said. “I’m here to fight for the people who fought for me.”

Yao and Laila Goodridge, UCP MLA for Fort McMurray – Lac La Biche, spoke with protestors about their concerns.

Yao said he spoke to protestors regarding program unit funding for children with disabilities, as well as concerns regarding physical distancing in classrooms.

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“It is the school board managing these issues and they are going to continue to do so to the best of their ability,” said Yao. “I would rather that than a bureaucrat from Edmonton trying to manage all this.”

For protestors like Fort McMurray resident Kg Banjoko, not everything should be left up to the school division.

“They’re dealing with financial cuts and they’re dealing with a pandemic so telling us to talk to our school board is not an answer,” said Banjoko.

Banjoko said she does not feel the provincial government is providing the best safety standards for teachers.

“They make it sound like they have more time than they do. School opens in two to three weeks,” she said. “It just doesn’t seem like there is a sense of urgency to what they are doing.”

The province announced in July that kindergarten to Grade 12 students will return to classrooms starting in September. No additional funding has been provided for reducing class sizes.

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Students between Grades 4 and 12 must wear masks when physical distancing is not possible. Anyone wishing to continue with at-home learning can do so.

Adriana LaGrange, Alberta’s minister of education, said in a Friday statement she is rejecting the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s (ATA) request for a delayed return to school.

“I have also had the chance to review all the planned re-entry dates for schools across the province and I do see clear time allowing teachers to prepare for re-entry before their students arrive,” said LaGrange.

In a response, the Alberta Union of Employees (AUPE) argued LaGrange is putting students at risk by not seeking advice from front line workers.

“No one knows more about what work is involved and what resources are needed to keep our school clean and our children and staff safe than custodial workers,” said AUPE.

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