‘A lot of uncertainty’: Parents, school boards await Alberta’s K-12 return-to-school plan

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While the Alberta government considers its options, parents and school boards are waiting anxiously to hear whether K-12 students will be going back to in-person or online learning next week.

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At Tuesday’s COVID-19 update, Premier Jason Kenney said the government is in discussions and will make a decision this week, but it wants to maintain in-class instruction as much as possible.

Brandi Rai, president of the Alberta Council of School Associations, said Wednesday she’s hearing frustration and concern from parents over a lack of proactive measures from the government, like improved air filtration or providing masks.

“They don’t want to get back on the COVID rollercoaster, flipping back and forth,” said Rai, adding that many parents in divisions across the province, without up-to-date data on COVID-19, are “extremely worried.”

“Many families … they’re caught in limbo, because they can’t make an informed decision, and in the absence of an informed decision, their children are not going to have equitable access to education — again,” said Rai.

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Last week, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said Albertans should use rapid test kits instead of seeking PCR tests to conserve testing capacity. On Tuesday, Hinshaw said approximately 8,250 new COVID-19 cases over five days , were “just the tip of the iceberg.” On Wednesday, active cases hit 17,396, while 349 Albertans were in hospital due to COVID-19, including 57 in intensive care.

Wing Li, spokeswoman for advocacy group Support Our Students Alberta, said the uncertainty for parents trying to figure out whether they can go back to work in January is being compounded by the decision coming down to the last minute, and a lack of data to assess the risk.

“We have to switch on a dime again, and I think it’s just frustrating and exhausting at this point,” said Li, who like Rai called for the province to take or restore safety measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.

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Shortage of staff looming for Edmonton Public Schools

On Wednesday, Edmonton Public Schools board chairwoman Trisha Estabrooks told reporters given Tuesday’s COVID-19 numbers, including a province-wide 22 per cent test positivity rate, the division will have a “deficit” of staff when its classes are set to resume Jan. 3.

“We can talk about sending kids back to school, but if we don’t have the staff to support kids in their learning, we can’t keep our schools open,” she said, also noting access to good data from the province is essential.

“Otherwise, we’re flying in the dark again,” said Estabrooks, referring to the province’s decision in the fall to cut Alberta Health Services’ contract tracing and notification in school communities.

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“It’s like bad déjà vu in some ways,” she said. With school boards, staff and parents like herself “feeling a lot of uncertainty,” Estabrooks said the sooner they can know what the return to school will look like, the better.

On Tuesday, Kenney also noted that with the rapid spread of Omicron many teachers and staff might be in isolation, and the government will be watching to see what other jurisdictions do.

Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Quebec have delayed return to school for most students until Jan. 10, while Newfoundland and Labrador opted to shift to online learning. Ontario is expected to announce its plans this week.

Nicole Sparrow, press secretary to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said in a Wednesday statement to Postmedia that safety is a top priority and the government will continue to monitor the situation, follow Hinshaw’s advice and make changes if it needs to, pointing to the latest health guidelines like staying home when sick, proper hand hygiene and getting vaccinated.

In a statement, Edmonton Catholic Schools spokeswoman Christine Meadows said the division will follow Alberta Education’s direction, and teachers are prepared to pivot online if they need to.

lijohnson@postmedia.com

twitter.com/reportrix

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