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Alberta officials answer questions on back to school plan as classes set to resume

Last Updated Jul 29, 2020 at 9:21 am MST

Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange speaking on school re-entry plan on June 10, 2020. (PHOTO: CityNews)

EDMONTON (660 NEWS) — With many uncertainties still surrounding Alberta’s back to school plan amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Minister of Education and Chief Medical Officer of Health hosted a Facebook livestream on Tuesday night addressing some questions.

The chat lasted half an hour, generating over 8,000 comments — with the vast majority of them being negative towards the government’s plan.

But at the end of the day, Minister Adriana LaGrange and Dr. Deena Hinshaw said that they are confident and feel comfortable about their kids or grandchildren going into school.

“Even since the plan was developed, it continues to be refined, taking into account all of the new knowledge we are gaining on a day-to-day basis,” said LaGrange. “I am very confident, I would feel confident sending my children, my grandchildren, to school.”

Dr. Hinshaw said returning to school is an important piece of the public health situation, in addition to just the COVID-19 cases themselves, as research has shown there is a detrimental effect to keeping children away from class for a prolonged period of time.

Classes were cancelled back in March as the pandemic took hold in the province, and they are set to go back in session as Alberta is seeing another rise in cases.

Several comments were sent in about how they plan to manage potential outbreaks, after a case was reported inside a Catholic summer school on Tuesday.

WATCH: COVID-19 surfaces at summer school

“That’s not a surprise,” said Dr. Hinshaw. “We knew that with students going back to school in person, that it is inevitable that we will have some cases of COVID and there will be some exposures at school. That is something that will not be possible to avoid.”

Once a case is identified, anyone who had “close contact” with that person will have to go into quarantine for two weeks and then they cannot go back to school until they have tested negative.

The issue of close contact is another contentious matter, as Dr. Hinshaw said that would qualify for anyone who was around the person while infectious at a distance less than two meters away and was not wearing a mask. At this point, masks will not be mandatory although school boards will be providing some to teachers to help ensure their safety.

“That question (on masks) is something we want to evaluate carefully, and we are always looking at emerging evidence because we want to make sure that our guidance is based on the most up-to-date evidence that is available,” added Dr. Hinshaw.

There is confidence that there will be no need to close down schools if there are a minimal amount of cases, and officials will do thorough contact tracing and cleaning to ensure there is no further spread.

Teachers have expressed some concern about what to do about physical distancing, especially in situations were classes are overcrowded, and Calgary Catholic School Board Chief Superintendent Dr. Bryan Szumlas admitted that the two-metre rule may be impossible.

“In a classroom of 30 students, that distance may be half a metre. We’re not sure. Every class is going to be different based on the size, the footprint of that space,” Dr. Szumlas told 660 NEWS.

LaGrange added that there is money available, through capital maintenance and reserve funding, to help schools install various upgrades that could limit the spread of the virus and the allocation of the money is up to school boards.

She said about $15 million is specifically allocated for COVID-related items like touchless sinks and hand sanitizing stations. These stations will be required at the entrance of schools and classrooms, with students told to use them before and after every class.

The Calgary Board of Education and CCSD are both already making major preparations, and while they are crunched for time there are some upgrades being undertaken immediately as well as adjusting schedules to allow for staggered class times and students to stay as separated as possible.

RELATED: School boards making major preparations for return to class 

LaGrange and Dr. Hinshaw noted there will be challenges for families, in response to a question about how to manage visits with older relatives once classes are back in session.

“You may want to, yourself, still be able to visit your parents. Perhaps your kids wouldn’t visit for a little. Or, again, you may want to hold off on visiting for the first several weeks,” said Dr. Hinshaw.

This, of course, ignores the fact that many children live with older relatives and Dr. Hinshaw did not acknowledge that specific concern.
LaGrange added later on though that there are some options available.

“As far as offering modifications for students who, perhaps for underlying conditions or because of family situations, require at-home learning or a portion of at-home learning, that is something that school divisions themselves will be addressing. So if you have a question in that regard, it is up to your school division to determine what they will be offering for the upcoming school year.”

As the Q-and-A session came to a close, LaGrange said people should stay tuned to any further developments.

“We will continue to provide opportunities to answer your questions. We look forward to that. As we get closer to the opening of school, there will be more information that’s coming available. We have a tool kit available for parents as well online.”