Return to learning delayed until January 10: Education Minister LaGrange

The decision comes after British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and several maritime provinces all delayed their return to personal learning.

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Alberta’s school holidays are being extended for an extra week when Education Minister Adriana LaGrange announced on Thursday that students will not return to formal learning until January 10.

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LaGrange said schooling will not begin next week as originally planned to give school boards extra time to plan student return amid rising COVID-19 numbers. She also announced that Class 12 diploma exams will be canceled and the province will provide 8.6 million quick home tests and 16.5 million medical masks to students and teachers across the education system.

“This break will give the school authorities the time they need to assess and consider staffing and operational implications, and I am convinced that this extra time to plan will be sufficient school authorities for a successful start-up,” LaGrange said.

The decision comes after British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and several maritime provinces all delayed the return to personal learning.

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LaGrange said it is difficult to assess the COVID-19 picture in schools with students still on vacation and the highly transferable Omicron variant that is spreading across Alberta. She said many children would most likely be forced to stay home. She said concerns about staff, including teachers as well as other staff, were raised by school authorities.

As of Wednesday, there had been 7,025 Omicron cases identified in Alberta. Data posted to the province’s website shows that the recent increase in cases has led to an increase in infections among school-age children. The rolling seven-day average of cases per 100,000 Albertans aged five to 11 years was 29.14 Christmas Day, an increase from 15.14 cases per. 100,000 on December 14th. Albertans aged 12 to 19 experienced a similar increase to 38.43 per. 100., up from 4.57 on December 12th.

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LaGrange said the impact of COVID-19 on schools will be reassessed closer to January 10 to help ensure a successful return to schools.

“I hope what I share today gives you some assurance that we actually take this very seriously and of course always put the safety of our students and our staff as our first priority,” LaGrange said.

LaGrange said she understands postponing a return to schools will cause challenges, noting that many parents will return to work next week. She gave no updates on additional support for parents or families negatively affected, but noted that day care and other facilities throughout Alberta will remain open.

Adriana LaGrange, Minister of Education, at the McDougall Center in Calgary on Monday, December 13, 2021.
Adriana LaGrange, Minister of Education, at the McDougall Center in Calgary on Monday, December 13, 2021. Photo by Gavin Young / Postmedia

Krista Li, who has a child in 3rd grade and a child in 7th grade, said earlier in the day that it was hard to wait for more information on how students would return to the classroom.

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She said she would be able to stay home with her children as she is a lecturer at the University of Alberta Campus Saint-Jean and the after school program has moved classes online by January. She noted, however, that many parents would face a tough time taking measures to find care for their children next week. She said a shift to online learning should be accompanied by parental support.

“I’m very, very privileged, and I recognize that quickly, but others are not,” Li said. “If we are to put students online, we will not give parents the tools they need to safely keep their children at home, we will not allow them to work from home, or we will not give them the financial security that they have. “I need to be at home. It’s far for nothing. It’s really punishing, it punishes vulnerable people.”

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Li said she would have been outraged but not surprised if the government had announced that schools would return for personal learning next week. She said her children would most likely have stayed home no matter what the government announced.

“I know what’s best for my kids, and sending them to a classroom with 30 of their best friends in classes that are very poorly ventilated just sounds like something I’m not interested in doing at the moment, said Li.

Li said a best-case scenario would be for children to return to schools with additional funding to reduce class sizes and improve ventilation.

An information sign outside Fairview School in southeastern Calgary on Wednesday, December 29, 2021.
An information sign outside Fairview School in southeastern Calgary on Wednesday, December 29, 2021. Photo by Brendan Miller / Postmedia

While Omicron cases were initially thought to cause less serious illness, the United States has seen a recent increase in pediatric hospitalizations. New York saw a 35 percent increase in admissions this week compared to the previous seven-day stretch.

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Dr. Shazma Mithani is an emergency room doctor who has a child in kindergarten. She said that despite public health measures in place, Omicron cases continue to break through and infect more people. She said it is worrying as thousands of students prepare to go back to class.

“My biggest concern as a parent is that we have thousands of children left in small classrooms that are poorly ventilated,” Mithani said. “This is going to explode as soon as we have all these kids crammed into small classrooms in a way… Sometimes classrooms with up to 30 kids all together. It’s going to be a big, big problem.”

Amanda Hu with the advocacy group Fresh Air Network has been an advocate for better masking and stronger filtering in schools during the year. She said that as the children return in the new year, she would strongly recommend the government introduce a mask mandate that will see teachers and potential students wear N95-style masks and respirators.

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“The guidance that most health officials have said is that in high-risk areas, N95-level respirators are required,” Hu said. “School settings are a high-risk area.”

Schools in Alberta are not officially designated as high-risk areas.

Hu said N95 respirators are more expensive than other masks, but that there are reusable styles on the market. She also said that proper HEPA air filters should already be installed in every school.

“It’s about making the space actually safe for children – and not just for children, but for their teachers – and then for all the communities, because the children go home and interact with their siblings and their parents and grandparents,” Hu said.

Amanda Hu has been an advocate for HEPA filters in CBE classrooms in Calgary.  The photo was taken on Wednesday, November 10, 2021.
Amanda Hu has been an advocate for HEPA filters in CBE classrooms in Calgary. The photo was taken on Wednesday, November 10, 2021. Photo by Darren Makowichuk / Postmedia

NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman reiterated those concerns Thursday, calling for additional funding for school boards to procure PPEs such as N95 masks and HEPA filters.

“When teaching resumes, we need a real plan to keep them safe. We see widespread evidence that COVID is airborne and the best protection provided is through N95 masks and better airflow provided by HEPA filters. “There is no excuse for the UCP to continue to withhold critical funds from schools during a fifth wave that may be greater than previous waves of COVID,” Hoffman said.

LaGrange said more information on the return to learning will be provided next week.

– With files from Brittany Gervais

dshort@postmedia.com

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