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Area MLAs endorse September back to school plans

Following government’s September back to school re-launch, NDP opposition release alternative plan

LAKELAND - The announcement came nearly two weeks ahead of schedule, but the Government of Alberta has decided to resume near-normal classes in the K-12 education system this fall.  The decision means that upwards of 10,000 students in Lakeland area schools will be back in regional classrooms in September.

Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul MLA David Hanson was in Edmonton all week, and said that as of Wednesday, he hadn't heard much feedback from area constituents. However, in the weeks prior, he had heard from some parents who were excited about getting back to some "normalcy" in the fall.

When asked specifically about how schools are expected to handle larger classes, Hanson admitted he was not entirely sure on the plan for those situations. He noted that a certain amount of money has been put toward ensuring safety in the classrooms while COVID-19 is still a risk. 

He noted that "daily monitoring of all staff and students" will be key in keeping everyone safe. Hanson said rules will be similar to how they are now for people returning to work, "If you have a sniffle or headache, you don't come in."

But, when asked how schools will be expected to juggle substitute teachers and education assistants who may be working a different schools throughout the region, Hanson did not have an answer.

So, while Stage 1 of the K-12 e-entry plan has been described as near-normal daily operations, Hanson admits "It's not going to be the same as when we left (classes) in February."

There will be protocols in place for everything - from ensuring family members sit together on school buses, to daily monitoring for any COVID-related symptoms. Hanson also said "constant contact and people working together" will be key to the return of classes. 

Just hours before the Lac La Biche region reported its first documented case of the virus, and the neighbouring MD of Bonnyville increased to 10 cases with two new reports, Hanson commended the region for doing "a great job" in avoiding an outbreak. With a month to go before most area students do return to school, and a recent increase in cases being noted across the province, Hanson said the provincial officials are paying attention to those numbers.  

Hanson said the province is learning from the pandemic, and despite the many issues, the message had been that schools boards and parents want to "get back to in-class learning."

"Robust" planning

Fort McMurray - Lac La Biche MLA Laila Goodridge is reading from the same playbook as Hanson. She says provincial officials have created a "robust" plan that has involved a lot of consultation.

The plan is not only based on consultations with officials from health and education departments, but also on successes from smaller, in-person programs that have been in place for several weeks. Goodridge said with in-person summer school classrooms and the successful re-opening of childcare centres across the province, "we know it works."

The plan will also benefit in the Lakeland region from residents being good at "following the rules" when it comes to COVID-19 pandemic protocols. 

"The re-opening is a testament to Albertans taking the responsibility... taking this seriously ... to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19," she said, offering that a recent increase in reported cases across the province is due to an uptick in tests being performed.

Face-to-face comments from constituents — often times students themselves, have also convinced the MLA that it is time to re-open the classrooms.

"I've had numerous parents reaching out to me ... and students coming up who say they are really hoping that I could pass on a message to (Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health) Dr. Deena Hinshaw that they want to go back to school."

When it comes to specific issues like school bus seating, cafeteria use, class sizes or students showing COVID symptoms in school, Goodridge referred to the plan and the experience of the Alberta Health professionals.

When asked if the government's plan would help reduce the curve of the virus spread, Goodridge said she believes it would.

"I"m cautiously optimistic," she replied.

Opposition has a plan

Sharing some of that caution, NDP Education critic Sarah Hoffman says the Alberta opposition party has put together its own return to class recommendations Released on July 23, two days after the government's plan was unveiled, Hoffman says their plan comes with a $1 billion price tag — an expense worth making if health is to remain a priority.

“While these recommendations come with a cost, the consequences of pretending things can operate normally without consequence will be far more costly,” said Hoffman on Thursday.  

The number one recommendation was a cap on class size to 15 students, along with hiring the staff necessary to accomplish this. A second recommendation was hiring staff to cover paid sick leave and time required to care for sick dependents. 

Hiring additional staff was a theme throughout many of the recommendations. The NDP also recommended hiring more staff to help with home learning demands, hiring more custodial staff and rehiring the support staff that was laid off when the pandemic began in the spring. 

Personal Protective Equipment and social distancing practices were also been brought up in the recommendations. The NDP would like to see mandatory use of masks in common areas and physical distancing in classrooms. 

“Students and staff should stay in one classroom where feasible,” according to the recommendations. Limiting parent and visitor admission to schools was also brought up. 

A recommendation to support hands-on learning if a return to remote learning is required was noted – even for subjects such as music, art and CTS.  

Funding to help school authorities purchase PPE and support those with disabilities and student who are “medically fragile” was also noted. 

Transportation was also brought up, with the NDP calling for a comprehensive and consistent protocol for school buses.  

Mental health support, and creating spaces in existing public spaces to be used by school authorities was also recommended.  

The last recommendation put forward by the NDP was the creation of a report by the Chief Medical Officer of Health with all her recommendations regarding schools reopening.