Albertans worried about COVID-19 during the coming school year are banking on school districts to implement their own safety plans as the provincial government lifts nearly all measures, including routine testing, contact tracing and isolating of positive cases.
The districts are now waiting on a guidance document from the province that is expected to be released in mid-August, which will leave roughly two weeks to plan for a return to in-class learning.
The uncertainty has left many school administrators, teachers, parents and students in a state of unease. Hundreds have attended daily protests in Calgary and Edmonton, calling on the province to reverse course.
“I have prided myself for many years on being a person who does not lose sleep over things I can’t control,” Medicine Hat Public School Division superintendent Mark Davidson in an interview. “But, to be honest, I’ve lost more sleep over this than just about anything for a long time.”
Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw, who announced the changes on July 28, said it is not possible to eliminate COVID-19, “which means we need to learn how to live with it.” Provincial masking orders, including universal masking in schools, will also be lifted, though masking may be recommended in the event of an outbreak.
Alberta is recording some of the highest numbers of active COVID-19 cases in the country, driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant. The province also has among the lowest first-dose vaccination rate in Canada, with 75.9 per cent of its eligible population having received one shot, compared to a national average of 81.1 per cent.
Shortly after Dr. Hinshaw’s announcement, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu wrote to her counterpart in Alberta warning that the province’s changes could put children at risk, and that the Delta variant calls for more caution – not less.
Mr. Davidson says much of the discussion in his district has been around the surprising nature of the announcement and how dramatically different the upcoming school year may look compared to the last.
“The challenge we have is that we don’t just wait for information about what it is we must do, but we also wait for information about what it is we’re permitted to do,” Mr. Davidson said.
“Depending on what the parameters of our response are allowed to be, come the middle of August, we’ll have to make a number of decisions from that point going forward about how to address the needs of our students.”
Edmonton Public School Board trustee Michael Janz said he has received many letters from parents concerned about a safe re-entry to school and that the school board will do its best to exceed legislated public health measures.
“I think parents are feeling a lot of apprehension and they’re feeling quite abandoned by this government,” he said.
“There is a protest every day at the legislature and I’m hoping that with the significant public pressure that trustees are hearing from parents, that teachers are expressing about their own health and well-being, that the government blinks and reinstates some of the very sensible measures they had last year.”
Measures that school districts could potentially implement on their own include mask mandates, cohorting of students and enhanced cleaning. But more meaningful measures, such as testing, tracing and isolating, rest with government.
Several school districts anticipate an increase in online learning. Edmonton Public Schools has extended its deadline for families to choose between in-person or online learning, to Aug. 16; Medicine Hat has developed its fledgling virtual, at-home learning hub into a full-time school.
But Wing Li, director and spokeswoman for the student advocacy group Support Our Students Alberta, noted that not everyone has the option to stay at home.
“That’s what breaks my heart, the stories of the people on the margins that depend on schools for nutrition, or their parents [can’t be at home because they] have to work to put food on the table,” she said. “This will leave those students behind and they’ll be the ones that suffer disproportionately.”
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange could not be reached for an interview. In an e-mailed statement, Ms. LaGrange’s press secretary, Nicole Sparrow, reiterated that the guidance document will be released in mid-August and said that school divisions “have the flexibility and autonomy to manage their school settings and implement practices that go beyond the public health requirements if they choose.”
Brandi Rai is president of the Alberta School Councils’ Association, which supports parents’ voices through more than 1,350 school councils in the province. She is also an immuno-compromised mother of five children, two of whom are too young to be vaccinated. She said she’s received much feedback through e-mails and social media.
“What lots of parents are feeling right now is sort of a slap in the face, because our children have sacrificed so much over the last 18 months – whether it’s Christmas with their grandparents, or sports, or seeing their friends or having in-person learning – because we were told, and we know, that this is not your average respiratory illness and it can kill people,” she said.
“Now that a portion of our children are unvaccinated, and there are variants spreading, there are no safety measures in place to protect our children.”
Alison Cassis, a mother and health care worker in Edmonton, said she was in “absolute disbelief” to learn of the province’s plan. As a single parent without access to child care, Ms. Cassis said she has no choice but to send her nine-year-old daughter back to school for in-class learning but she’s deeply worried about the risks.
“First of all, obviously I don’t want my child to get sick,” she said. “But if we’re not testing, I don’t know if she gets it. I’m a close contact of hers, and then I’m spreading it all through my own facility. It’s terrifying to think of how many of us as parents are going to be the source of spread because we don’t know.”
Ms. Cassis said she will encourage her daughter to continue wearing a mask, avoiding people who appear sick and other safety measures that she has been practising to date.
“Right now, I’m praying to God that the public school board picks up the slack,” she said.
Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling said while last year’s rules made the school year challenging, they were necessary to protect students and staff. Measures that worked well, such as masking and hand sanitizing, should remain in place, he said.
Mr. Schilling said teachers have many concerns with the government’s plan, which he called irresponsible and reckless. He wants the province to reinstate some measures, such as routine testing.
“But when you look at the plan of the government, it’s just back to normal,” he said. “We know that we’re not living in normal times. We’re still living in a pandemic and still dealing with the consequences of that.”
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