LAKELAND - An announcement from Alberta Education last Thursday afternoon is confirming that all students will return to in-person learning at Alberta schools starting on Monday.
"All students will return to in-person learning, as planned, on Jan. 11. Mandatory health measures will remain in effect across the province until at least Jan. 21," states the release that was sent out Thursday at 4:15 pm.
The news comes after a two-week Christmas break from classes plus an additional week of at-home learning by all Alberta students. The confirmation of the Jan. 11 start date follows the province's enhanced measures plan issued at the end of November of last year. Those plans moved all Grade 7-12 students to virtual learning, kept students in Kindergarten to Grade 6 students in classrooms until the Christmas break, and then put all students into a virtual learning scenario for the first week of classes after the break.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said the decision to stick with the plan is based on up-to-date reviews of COVID data, as well as the need to encourage in-person interactions between students and teachers and students and their peers.
"The decision to resume in-class learning on Jan. 11 is based on carefully considering the importance of attending school in person as well latest evidence of cases dropping in all school-related age groups in December," Kenney said. "Schools play a key role in supporting student learning as well as their emotional health mental health and overall well-being."
For families or students feeling anxious about going back to a school environment during the continuing pandemic, the premier offered some research showing that school settings have maintained significantly low case counts.
"I know that some of you might feel anxious about putting your backpacks on and going back to class on Monday, but it's important to note that between September and the winter break ... less than one half of one percent of students and school staff tested positive for COVID 19, Kenney said, explaining that the province's "practical plan" will be altered "as necessary", but will always puts the safety of staff and students first.
The premier said health officials are confident the decision to go back to classrooms will not accelerate instances of widespread transmission.
"That has not been the case in the past," he said.
Northern Lights Public Schools spokesperson Nicole Garner says Thursday's announcement was expected. She says the reasons that provincial officials are allowing all students back into classroom settings is based on enhanced COVID measures within communities as well as statistical information collected over the last year showing that virus cases that originate in school settings is negligible.
All in again
When asked what was different with next week's all-student return to classes across the Northern Lights district compared to last September's return that resulted in restrictions, outbreaks and virtual learning scenarios, Garner said more safeguards are now in place. She explained that while it's true that cases of the virus are higher than they were in most communities last September, the preventative measures now in place are much more restrictive than they were back then.
"In September we did have a much lower community rate ... but on the flip side, now we have much stricter community restrictions than we did in September. Back last September everything was pretty open ... and now we have most everything closed," she said, explaining that the back-to-school announcement was accompanied by provincial officials saying other enhanced measures throughout the province — including the closure of recreation facilities, restrictions on team sports and social gatherings and business occupancy levels — would remain in place for another two weeks.
Garner said school staff and administration are hopeful that a combination of those enhanced restrictions, community compliance, in-school pandemic measures, provincial guidance ... and experience from almost a year of coronavirus reaction will bring a smooth transition back into classrooms. She said the latest scenario leading up to Thursday's announcement, where all students were learning virtually for the first school week of January went fairly well. Despite some technology and connectivity issues, overall feedback from the week on the web was positive. It's all part of a learning curve that students and staff have been working on.
When schools first went to online learning models last March, the changes happened quickly with a lot of unknowns about the virus itself. Fast-forward 10 months, and school staff, administration, community members and students completed a fairly uneventful week of all-grade virtual learning.
"In some ways it is very different from last spring both in terms of we have had a bit more time for students and staff to prepare to be online this time around .... staff have been doing a lot of PD, been looking at their lessons to how they an adapt them to online," said Garner, explaining that teachers have had more of an opportunity to work with students to get them familiar with Google classroom software used in the virtual settings. "Last Spring everything was shut down abruptly and we weren't totally prepared to operate in that environment."
Another difference with the scenarios that have played out this school year over last, is the expectation that students will be fully graded on their work. During the online learning last March, families were told that students would advance ahead a grade no matter how their virtual learning went. This year, whether it has been virtual teaching or in-class learning, all students are expected to meet curricular standards in order to move ahead.
While the numbers for school cases of COVID have been low, Alberta's premier says almost all other demographic areas in Alberta have reached levels that are higher than most other province in the country. As some of those numbers are showing signs of levelling out, Kenney urges all Albertans to continue with pandemic precautions
"We have made progress, but we are far from getting out of this," he said, explaining that the ongoing restrictions on business, sports and recreation will be evaluated for the next two weeks.
Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health said the decisions to go back to classrooms are tied closely to the continuing efforts of all Albertans to follow COVID guidelines in their communities.
"There are no risk-free options with COVID ... but our data indicates that the current school model in place is largely effective at limiting in-school transmission," she said. "The keys to keeping our schools, workplaces, continuing care facilities and the rest of society healthy is limiting the transmission in our communities ... I know this has been a challenging last four weeks, but we cannot relax our grip," Deena Hinshaw said on Thursday.