Alberta parents and students grapple with in-person learning

As the winter break extension ends this week, parents and students are left with a tough choice: return in person or continue with remote learning.

The province announced classes will return to in-person learning on Monday before schools receive rapid tests and medical-grade masks by the end of that week, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said.

“In-person learning is critically important for many kids’ educational and social development and can provide a sense of stability and normalcy in these challenging times,” said Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

Measures like daily screening for symptoms, mandatory masking for grades 4 and up, physical distancing, and enhanced cleaning will remain in place. However, Alberta Health Services will no longer conduct full contact tracing investigations in schools.

“Alberta is now focused on investigating cases in high-priority settings such as continuing care as well as those who work in health care,” Alberta Health says.

School districts can still shift specific grades or classes to temporary online learning if there are COVID-19 cases, but requests to move entire schools to at-home learning must be approved by the minister of education.

STAFFING CHALLENGES

The continuation of in-person learning with the Omicron variant has the Edmonton Public School Board worried about operating with enough staff.

“COVID-19-related absences of both staff and students pose a significant risk to the Divison’s ability to provide continuity of learning to students,” the district said in an open letter to LaGrange on Thursday.

EPSB reported 151 unfilled positions in December, primarily due to COVID-19, and anticipates the “majority” of those positions to remain unfilled, in addition to projected increases in staff absences due to COVID protocols.

“Projections include only teachers, but we know all school-based staff will experience high rates of absence due to illness,” the board said.

“Despite the extension to winter break, our concerns with staffing and Division operations have not changed.”

EPSB hopes for clear guidelines from the province on when schools should move online and to keep notifying schools about positive cases.

‘TOUGH CHOICE’

Izabella Caforio, a Grade 12 student in Edmonton, says most of her teachers post material online, allowing her to learn online.

“(I’m) nervous going into school,” she told CTV News, adding that many students do not follow masking measures and that they are not upheld in all settings.

“There’s (also) so many students that come into school ill, and no one is sent to the office to be sent home,” Caforio added. “I feel unsafe because no one is pointing that out.”

Despite her concerns, Caforio believes learning in person is where she does best. Now she says a “tough choice” lies ahead.

“I have to choose between my education and my wellbeing,” she said. “Do I choose to go in person where I know I learn best and where I know I can thrive the best, or do I stay home where I know I don’t do the best, but I’ll still be healthy?

“What am I supposed to do?” she asked. “I have always been taught that education is so important. But I’ve always been taught that health is so important as well.”

‘THE ONLY THING WE COULD DO’

One Edmonton mom shared how she takes her son’s safety into her own hands by eating lunch together in her car. Otherwise, eight-year-old Sam would be eating lunch with dozens of unmasked kids.

“That way, we can make it possible for him always to be masked when he’s indoors with all those other households,” Nadine Riopel told CTV News.

“I’m not loving it,” she added. “It’s not as much of a pain as staying home with him all of last year and not working and just sitting and listening to online school happening.”

While Riopel welcomes rapid tests and medical-grade masks from the province, she’s concerned that contact tracing is ending.

“They’re throwing these supplies at us or the schools,” she said, “(but) there’s no reporting, and there’s no tracking. So even if we do use them (the rapid tests), what impact does it have?”

Riopel purchased child-sized N95 masks for her son to use as well, saying the medical-grade masks the province is providing may not be the best defence against the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

“Between those things, hopefully, we can keep ourselves from catching infection at the school but also keep from bringing infection into the school,” she said.

Parents have until Tuesday to decide whether their children will continue this school year online or in person. 

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