Alberta parents and teachers should plan for a return to in-class learning next week, the provincial Department of Education says, though officials are prepared to change gears if necessary.
Most kindergarten to Grade 12 students in the province were sent home from in-class learning starting May 7 at the same time a new round of public health orders were issued aimed at slowing the spread of the third wave of COVID-19. The goal was to have students back in classrooms following the May long weekend.
In a statement Tuesday, Nicole Sparrow, press secretary for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said Alberta Education is committed to a safe return to in-person learning next Tuesday but will be monitoring the situation.
“We recognize the importance of resuming in-person learning as soon as it is possible. We are confident students will return back to their classrooms to finish the school year,” she said.
During a livestream on Facebook on Tuesday evening, Premier Jason Kenney said he anticipates “almost every part of the province” to open in-person education next Tuesday.
“There are one or two regions where COVID is continuing to grow right now, including amongst younger people. So, there may be one or two areas where we have to be a bit cautious,” Kenney said.
The premier said an announcement is expected Wednesday, as well, an update will likely come next week about when children’s sport and performance will be able to restart.
At a news conference Tuesday, Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said the decision to move classes online was an operational choice by Alberta Education due to concerns such as staffing issues, not based on public health advice.
She said she would be comfortable sending her kids back to class as scheduled.
“I think that with community transmission beginning to see a decline, with immunizations on the rise and with other restrictions in place to limit transmission of COVID-19, schools have been in this last year one of the safest places for children to be,” she said.
It’s unclear what metrics the government will be using to confirm whether schools will reopen next week. Sparrow said “discussions are ongoing and more information will be available very soon.”
Calgary Board of Education officials told Postmedia they will be waiting for direction from Alberta Education about the return to in-person learning.
On Tuesday, the province’s R-value — the average number of people that someone with COVID-19 will infect — was at 0.84. On May 3, before the restrictions were announced, it was 1.12.
Hospitalizations, including ICU stays, have shot up in the province during the third wave, putting more pressure on the health-care system than ever before. Earlier this week officials said the numbers are expected to peak in the next week or two due to the lag between infection and hospitalization.
Since classes were moved online, Alberta’s vaccination program has been opened to everyone 12 or older, and more than half of eligible Albertans have received their first dose.
On May 4, the government began offering vaccines to teachers.
Thirty-seven per cent of educators who responded to a survey by the Alberta Teachers’ Association completed just prior to that announcement said they had already received their first dose of vaccine.
ATA president Jason Schilling said Tuesday that he didn’t know how many teachers are now vaccinated, but added teachers have mixed emotions about potentially returning to the classroom.
“They want to be as safe as possible for themselves and their students. But they also want to be with their students at school working, because ideally that’s the place that is the best for learning.”
Schilling said there are supports the government could offer even as the school year draws to a close, including more PPE, more money for contact tracing or support for substitute teachers who have missed out on contracts over the past two weeks.
At the beginning of the school year, the government spent $10 million on two reusable masks for each Alberta student as well as hand sanitizer and contactless thermometers for schools.
NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said the decision to move all classes online happened quickly and left parents scrambling. She said the government needs to offer more notice this time about its plans.
“We can’t have another last-minute chaotic announcement,” she said Tuesday.