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Alberta aiming to have students back to 'normal learning' in September


EDMONTON — Alberta aims to have students back in classrooms this September with some health measures in place to deal with COVID-19.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange says a decision will be made by Aug. 1, but the expectation is for students to return while adhering to strict hygiene and social distancing rules.

In-school learning was cancelled March 16 as the province worked to reduce rising numbers of COVID-19 cases.

Students have since been studying and working with teachers online.

"Our goal is to get us back to normal learning as soon as possible," LaGrange said Wednesday.

"Teachers, school boards and parents did their absolute best to adapt to a different way of learning ... we all know, though, that students learn best in the classroom with their teachers and their peers."

When classes resume, the plan is to have routine screening of all students and staff, enhanced cleaning of all surfaces and hand hygiene when students enter and leave classrooms and the schools.

Classrooms are to be reorganized to provide as much social distancing as possible.

Students will be cohorted by class where possible. So if one comes down with COVID-19, it will be easier to isolate and prevent an outbreak.

Staff and students will not be required to wear masks, but masks could be considered in situations where people can't meet two-metre distancing.

There will be markers and pylons in hallways to direct traffic flows. Large gatherings, like school assemblies, are discouraged and students won't be allowed to share supplies.

This is one of three scenarios for schools, depending on concerns and case counts for COVID-19.

If necessary, some school regions will not go back to normal and will have to take more severe measures, such as having half its students in a school one day and the other half the next.

In an extreme situation, stay-at-home learning will be kept in place.

LaGrange said the province will decide which scenario a school board should implement, and it could vary from region to region.

She said boards will have latitude to implement the best way to meet health and distancing requirements, and talks are ongoing on how to ensure resources, such as hand sanitizer, are there when needed.

Opposition NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said the United Conservative government's plan is incomplete, as it fails to address issues such as playgrounds and water fountains and doesn't provide clarity on how school boards will fund the extra resources while enrolment grows.

Hoffman also noted that school boards are responsible for student safety but don't get the final say on what type of school-return option works best for them.

"I am hopeful for a safe return to school in the fall. But as we've come to expect from Minister LaGrange, she hasn't done her homework. I lot of serious questions haven't been answered," said Hoffman.

Jason Schilling, head of the Alberta Teachers' Association, said it wants to see more specifics on roles, responsibilities and costs of keeping teachers, staff, and students safe.

"It can't all fall on the teacher to be cleaning their classroom, watching their students and delivering lessons at the same time."

Also Wednesday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, reported 47 new cases of COVID-19 and a total of 371 active cases.

Forty-two people are in hospital with the virus, and six of those are in intensive care. The death toll remains at 151.

The province plans to reopen spas, pools, casinos, churches, movie theatres and other businesses on Friday because of the low case numbers.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2020

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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