Prior to the May 4 announcement regarding heavier public health restrictions, a large number of students in Barrhead, Westlock and other parts of the Pembina Hills School Division were already in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19 or being a close contact of someone who tested positive.
For that reason, the switch to at-home learning until after the Victoria Day long weekend is likely “a good thing” as it will allow for a cooling-off period, Supt. David Garbutt told Pembina Hills trustees at their May 12 meeting as part of a general COVID update.
Garbutt noted that the division had been receiving daily calls from Alberta Health about new cases of COVID-19, which would necessitate contact tracing.
At 4 p.m. on May 12, Alberta Health listed both Barrhead Composite High School and Barrhead Elementary School as having outbreaks of 10-plus cases, while Neerlandia Public Christian School, R.F. Staples School, Westlock Elementary School and Eleanor Hall School in Clyde were listed as having outbreaks of five to nine cases.
And while having students learn in a classroom environment is obviously preferable, Garbutt also said that their teachers are getting used to shifting to online learning and he had not received any negative feedback directly from parents.
Not all schools closed
Garbutt did clarify a few things about the new health restrictions, the first being that not all K-12 schools across the province are affected.
The day it was announced that all K-12 students would be learning from home until May 25, the Deputy Minister of Education clarified that Hutterite Colony schools, early learning programs and outreach schools were exempt from the restrictions.
In fact, Garbutt said he had been over to the Barrhead Outreach School the day before and there were two students there, though most of the other Outreach students were learning from home.
When trustee Jackie Comeau asked if there were still any staff members working in their respective schools, Garbutt also clarified that schools were not technically closed.
He said that any staff members who could work from home were directed to do so, but there are students with special needs throughout Pembina Hills who simply cannot be served through online learning.
“Those that cannot (learn from home) — and we have some of those at every one of our sites — are continuing to come to school,” Garbutt said.
Those special needs students who were being bused to school previously are also still receiving bus service, he said.
Overall, Garbutt said they are looking forward returning to in-person classes following the May long weekend, depending on what the COVID-19 situation is like out in the community.
Trustee Wendy Scinski asked Garbutt if the division continued to have enough cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) to serve students and staff. He answered that was not an issue for Pembina Hills at this time.