BOW VALLEY – With 750,000 students across Alberta expected to return to classrooms in the fall, local education authorities are preparing detailed re-entry plans for every school in the Bow Valley.
Canadian Rockies Public Schools will make its district-wide re-entry plan publicly available on Aug. 14 and individual school plans will be released on Aug. 24 for parents to better understand how each will mitigate the spread of COVID-19 for staff and students.
Christ the Redeemer Catholic Schools superintendent Scott Morrison already posted that district's overall draft re-entry plan on its website, but will provide parents with a revised plan on Aug. 5.
According to a letter sent to parents from Morrison this week, plans for specific schools, like Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Academy in Canmore, will be posted on the website Aug. 25.
"We’ve heard from the Alberta School Councils survey, that the overwhelming majority of parents support a return to normal schooling, and we will do all we can to ensure the return to school is safe, calm, and orderly," Morrison wrote.
"For those parents who are not comfortable sending their students back to school under scenario one, please notify your principal, as CTR can direct you to enrolling in the Centre For Learning@Home, CTR Catholic’s online school."
On Tuesday (July 21), Education Minister Adriana LaGrange and Premier Jason Kenney announced that students in Alberta will return to classrooms in the fall.
"The evidence is overwhelming, schools can be operated safely with little health risk for young ones and teachers," Kenney said.
The premier pointed to successful summer school programs in Alberta this year, as well as the experiences in jurisdictions like Denmark and B.C. with in-class learning during the pandemic, as support for the government's decision to return students to classrooms this fall.
The government was considering three possible scenarios for the next school year, after in-class teaching was cancelled mid-March at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Scenario one was a return to normal classroom learning, the second was a hybrid online and in-class learning model and the third was only online learning.
"Our health and education officials have closely studied the experiences of other provinces and countries and together developed state of the art protocols to minimize transmission [of COVID-19] in schools," Kenney said. "I am confident everyone in the school system will do their utmost to follow the comprehensive guidance Alberta Health has developed for schools."
Officials said the risk to public health created by keeping schools closed outweighs the risk of transmission of the infectious disease from reopening.
LaGrange said guidance for schools includes: placing hand sanitizer in each classroom, students and teachers organized into cohorts to minimize interactions and the frequent cleaning of surfaces.
"I know many parents and children will be happy to go back to a near normal school routine," she said. "Come September, our school days will look mostly the same as before, but with some modifications."
Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said there are no easy choices to make in this situation.
"We will almost certainly identify cases of COVID-19 in students and staff in the fall, because of this we are putting measures in place," Hinshaw said. "There is a re-entry toolkit designed to prepare parents and students for what to expect in the school year."
Measures include requiring students to use hand sanitizer before entering the school or classroom and a daily assessment for symptoms. However, it does not include requiring students to wear masks or imposing a limit on class sizes.
"We recognize how difficult masking would be, especially in lower elementary grades, which is why we are not relying on any single health measure to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the school setting," Hinshaw said. "This is part of living with the new normal of COVID-19. We must be agile, adaptive and guided by the evidence at it emerges. This is the best way to protect the health and safety, and well-being of students, staff and communities."
Principals for the six CRPS schools in the valley will provide parents with detailed re-entry plans a week before students return to the classroom.
In a letter to parents on July 22, superintendent Chis MacPhee thanked parents for their patience "as we navigate the development of our school re-entry plans."
"I have every confidence that our schools will be ready to move forward on Aug. 31 and that they will serve the needs of your child in the best way possible," wrote MacPhee. "That being said, we realize that some families may opt out of sending their children to school this fall due to the pandemic.
"If this is the case for your family, we encourage you to contact the school on or after Aug. 25 to discuss at home learning arrangements."
Stoney Education Authority superintendent Bill Shade also sent a letter to parents this week saying a more detailed re-entry plan for its schools will be released at the beginning of August.
"Stoney Education Authority will also begin with scenario one," Shade wrote. "However, we will closely monitor the situation regarding COVID-19 as the first day of school draws closer."
The NDP opposition has criticized the provincial plan for not doing enough to protect students and staff and not financially supporting school divisions to cover the additional costs related to COVID-19.
Rachel Notley released an alternative school re-entry plan on Thursday (July 23) and criticized the lack of additional operational funding for schools to undertake the plan.
While the government announced $120 million in funding for schools across the province in September to cover additional costs related to the coronavirus, this spring the UCP cut $128 million from Alberta school budgets.
The NDP plan included a class size limit of 15 students and hiring the staff to achieve that target, hiring additional custodial staff, and reverse the prior cuts that resulted in 20,000 educational support staff in being laid off for an estimated cost of $730 million. The NDP also proposed $63 million for mental health, $31 million for busing and $220 million for additional protective equipment and supplies.