LAKELAND – Last Friday, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, and Education Minister Adriana LaGrange outlined several new changes for students returning to in person-learning this September.
The province’s “Back-to-School" plan has several notable changes, which include the extension of contract tracing, mandatory isolation for those with “core COVID symptoms,” and allowing asymptomatic testing to continue until Sept. 27.
“Not only does this allow us to do further monitoring,” said Dr. Hinshaw. “It also gives us more time to increase vaccination levels, which is the number one most important thing, adults and older children can do to protect themselves and younger children... We are not going backwards. We are pausing to monitor and assess, before taking a next step forward.”
According to the provinces new guidance document, masking, classroom cohorts and social distancing will not be mandated by the province, however, school board divisions will have the autonomy to implement health measures if it is deemed necessary in localized contexts. However, masking will remain mandatory on school buses.
“We know that the provincial health measures that were necessary last year to control COVID-19 — including the temporary closure of schools to in-person learning, quarantine of entire classes and cancelling extracurricular events — have been associated with the deterioration in the mental health of children and youth,” Hinshaw said. “I know that we all care deeply about our children and their safety and well-being and there are a variety of perspectives on how to best balance all of the risks they face."
Schools also will no longer have to track or share positive COVID-19 cases to Alberta Health Services (AHS), unless a school-wide absenteeism of students and staff surpasses 10 per cent, or an unusual number of individuals display similar symptoms. At this point, AHS may declare an outbreak and recommend additional voluntary measures be taken.
Core symptoms outlined by the province include: fever, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, and loss of sense of smell or taste. For adults only, sore throat and runny nose are added to the list.
As well, AHS will no longer inform schools when a staff member or student tests positive for the illness. This will also end the practice of entire classes being required to quarantine after a positive COVID-19 case is identified. However, individuals who test positive for the virus will be required to isolate for 10 days.
In order to increase accessibility, Hinshaw announced starting Sept. 7, in-school pop-up vaccination clinics will offer students in Grade 7 to 12 the opportunity to get first or second doses of the vaccine. Students will require consent forms completed by a parent or guardian.
“Right now, only about half of youth 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated. Providing vaccines through school ensures vaccines will be accessible to all eligible school aged Albertans in the province,” stated Hinshaw.
Education Minister LaGrange followed, saying, “Albertan parents, students and school staff can look forward to a normal school year this September, which includes a return to in-person classes, field trips, team sports, extracurricular clubs, school celebrations and reconnecting with friends and colleagues, international student programs work experience and graduation celebrations."
LaGrange also announced the provincial spending of more than $130 million in COVID mitigation funding that school divisions can use as they see fit to address local needs for the upcoming school year. To jumpstart learning for students in Grade 1 to 3, school authorities will also be able to access $45 million in new funding for intensive, small groups literacy and numeracy programming.
“This funding will help ensure that no student gets left behind as we enter this new school year. Learning in a safe environment remains our top priority,” said LaGrange.
Local school districts to review guidelines
Following Friday’s announcement, Lakeland Catholic School Division (LCSD), Northern Lights Public Schools and St. Paul Education, all reported to Lakeland Today that more time would be needed to review the province's return-to-school plan and accompanying guidelines.
“We appreciate the plan released by the province and are thoughtfully evaluating the guidelines to ensure we implement them while being mindful of our local context,” said Pamela Guilbault, superintendent for LCSD, in a statement.
“As always, our decision making is driven by the need to maintain the health and safety of our school community. As we move toward the start of another school year, we will continue to assess how these guidelines will be implemented,” she added.
The LCSD Board of Trustees Chairperson Diane Bauer, shared similar sentiments. “The health and safety of our staff, teachers, students, and families is a top priority for Lakeland Catholic,” Bauer stated. “The board is keeping our families and staff in mind as we plan for a safe return to school.”
Glen Brodziak, superintendent of St. Paul Education, wrote in a statement, “Having just received the above information ourselves, we are reviewing the documents in order to set direction for the 2021-22 school year... I will be consulting and receiving direction from our board of trustees.”
In the coming weeks, trustees, superintendents and Alberta Education representatives in the Lakeland region are expected to share more information and meet with senior staff to discuss the guidelines for the 2021-22 school year.
St. Paul Education is hosting a virtual meeting on Thursday to discuss the division's return to school plan. The event will take place at 6:30 p.m.