When Premier Jason Kenney and Minister of Education Adrianna LaGrange stood in front of a podium this week and announced that school children will return to normal classroom learning in the fall, nothing could be further from the truth.
Regardless of the decision to send kindergarten to Grade 12 students back into their regular learning environments across the province, those schools and classrooms will be completely different and it is time officials stop trying to pretend that while COVID-19 is spreading in our communities it is possible to return to anything resembling normal.
Everything associated with how public education is delivered in this province will be altered in significant ways.
Each school authority has been, including those in the Bow Valley, has been working on re-entry plans since the spring. Considerations being made are extensive and detailed. Imagine analyzing every single possible surface in a school that could be touched by students and then image coming up with a plan to mitigate those scenarios.
How students get to and from the school, entering and exiting the building, where they store their person items while in class, water fountains, recess and lunchtime are just few of the things that will not be normal.
Playground equipment will be off limits, lockers are not allowed and the doors of local schools will be locked to the public. Students and teachers will be organized into cohorts – this is a fundamental departure of how classrooms have been managed up until this point. Not to mention exam schedules and the number of courses offered each term will also have to adapt.
These are but a few of the considerations teachers and administrators are grappling with understanding and managing to keep students and staff safe.
While the provincial government has made the decision to send students back to school in the fall, it has not taken the step of instituting a cap on classroom sizes as a way to prevent the spread of this infectious disease.
According to LaGrange, school districts have all the money and guidance they need in order to make this happen. Others disagree and argue that this approach puts students and staff at risk.
But with a brand new infectious disease circulating the planet, everything we do has a higher risk. The good news is that while we cannot change that reality, we can take steps to be more safe within an environment that has a greater risk.
Wearing masks, socially distancing and regularly washing hands – these are very basic measures every single person can adopt to reduce risk.
Schools can adapt to the so-called new normal as well. But we have to be very careful to make sure we don't set ourselves up for failure by expecting that things are going to return to way they were pre-COVID-19.
What teachers, students and administrators need now, however, are clear guidelines from the province and the means to implement them.
LaGrange said this week there was capital funding over the summer available to retrofit schools with things that will help prevent the spread.
Water bottle filling stations instead of water fountains, and plexi-glass barriers to create additional separation where needed, don't just pay for themselves. Substitute teachers to fill in for those who are sick are an additional costs all school boards can expect in the 2020-21 school year.
LaGrange said there is an additional $150 million coming to school authorities in September to help with the additional operational costs associated with reopening schools during the pandemic – we hope this is true.
Up until the pandemic hit, the UCP has been systematically reducing school budgets across the province. Do more with less is the expectation, but that is no longer possible.
To continue to pursue a cost cutting agenda above all else to manage the fact Alberta does not collect enough revenues to pay for is expenditures will only exacerbate this crisis. Teachers, students and administrators need our public support now more than ever to navigate their way through the new reality. There's nothing normal about that.