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Stacey Speta, pictured here with her husband Kevin Hallman and sons Anders and Bergen, in Beaumont, Alberta on Friday, July 31, 2020, is concerned about the province’s back to school plan, especially for Bergen who is on the Autism spectrum.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

Stacey Speta isn’t sure whether her five-year-old son with autism will return to his school in Beaumont, Alta., this fall. While she is eager for him to go back to the classroom while she works, she feels that Alberta’s plan to reopen schools will not do enough to keep him safe and engaged.

The Alberta government announced its school re-entry plan last week, stating that classes will resume in September under near-normal conditions, with some safety protocols in place. Students will attend full-time while teachers juggle larger class sizes because of earlier budget cuts and school boards search for money to pay for increased safety measures.

The announcement set off a heated debate. Some teachers and parents worry that classrooms could become COVID-19 hot spots; the province argues that, while some infections are inevitable, it’s possible – and necessary for the economy – to get kids back into school.

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“This plan just provides for business as usual and we’re in the middle of a global health pandemic, so it isn’t business as usual,” Ms. Speta said. “Parents want assurances about the plan and additional funding, making sure that things will be cleaned. The province is saying that they’re working with the best evidence that they have now, but for a lot of parents in this province, they’re not willing to take that gamble.”

Alberta previously outlined three re-entry scenarios: full-time return; a mix of in-class and remote learning; and lessons at home. Under the current plan, schools will be encouraged to stagger schedules for classes, recesses and lunch to physically distance students. There will be enhanced cleaning, hand-sanitizer stations and increased handwashing. However, there will be no new caps on class sizes, and masks are not mandatory.

While many parents and students across Canada hope to return to school, Albertans are the most likely to keep their children home, according to a survey by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies on July 27. Twenty-nine per cent of respondents in the province said they will not send their kids to school.

As cases spike in Alberta, the plan stands in contrast to those of other provinces that require a blend of in-class and remote learning, plus some mask-wearing.

Ontario students will return without new class-size limits for its youngest children but some caps at the most crowded boards. There will be a mix of in-class and remote learning at the secondary level, and a mandatory mask requirement for Grades 4 to 12 – the only policy its kind in Canada. B.C. schools will reopen with students organized into learning groups to limit contact with others. Masks will not be mandatory.

Public health officials have pointed to studies that suggest children are less likely to spread COVID-19, and teachers have expressed concern that masks would make educating younger children more difficult, as they depend on facial expressions and movements to learn how to pronounce letters and words.

Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta, said that since the guidelines are vague around elements such as cohorting, funding, staffing and managing outbreaks, teachers and parents are feeling uncertain about what the school year will look like for their individual situations.

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“Individual schools might take parts of the guidance differently. They left it a little bit open to allow for differences. Then the situation becomes that the stronger lobby groups will win over the evidence, but that’s because the evidence isn’t strong enough to make a firm recommendation.”

The Alberta Teachers’ Association, which represents 46,000 teachers, said that it attempted to meet with Education Minister Adriana LaGrange before the plan was released but was unable to secure a meeting. The ATA submitted a letter to the ministry in June, it said, saying that its recommendations and concerns were not reflected in the strategy.

The association has posted coronavirus-related information for teachers on its website, including details on the right to refuse work in unsafe conditions.

“Teachers are looking forward to going back to school, but they want to make sure that it is safe,” ATA president Jason Schilling said. “It’s unfortunate that teachers are considering that they might have to invoke the refusal to work because they feel that the workplace is unsafe. Those are some of the concerns that we’re trying to address with the government.”

A student with the Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, despite measures in place at summer classes that are stricter than schools will see in September. In-person learning resumed earlier this month at St. Francis School for 200 students, with classes capped at 15 and desks spaced two metres apart. When the school learned of the case, the teacher and classmates were told to quarantine for 14 days.

In September, the CCSD will require school employees to wear personal protective equipment – a mask or a face shield – even though the province has not mandated it. Chief superintendent Bryan Szumlas said that most teachers are choosing to wear masks during summer classes.

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The board is still uncertain about how schools will be required to manage outbreaks in the fall, he said. Alberta plans to release more details over the next few weeks on issues including quarantine and self-isolating procedures for schools with cases, and how different grades will be required to physically distance in common areas.

This is also the first academic year that schools will operate under the province’s new funding model. After freezing overall funding for education in its fall budget, the government temporarily cut $128-million for K-12 education and laid off more than 20,000 staff earlier this year, funnelling the money instead into its COVID-19 response.

As part of its re-entry plan, the province included a funding increase of nearly $120-million across the province, as well as $250-million in capital maintenance funding, of which $15-million is allocated for virus-related upgrades such as hands-free sinks and automatic doors. School boards are also allowed to dip into reserves to help cover such costs.

“Alberta Education is in constant communication with Alberta’s school boards, and will continue to work with them to ensure a safe and successful return to school this September,” Alberta’s Ministry of Education spokesperson Colin Aitchison said in an email. “We are confident that they have the resources they require to ensure a successful transition.”

But the funding increase narrowly replaces the cuts implemented when the pandemic forced schools to close, and the amount in school-board reserves varies across the province, said Shelley Odishaw, vice-president of the Alberta School Councils’ Association.

“They’ve talked a lot about school division reserves, but that’s not a consistent or equitable solution because not all school divisions have the same amount. They’ll have to figure out what classrooms can do without.”

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The Alberta NDP proposed a $1-billion plan to address school budgets and classroom needs, including hiring thousands of teachers, capping class sizes at 15 students and covering the cost of PPE.

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