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Pembina Hills, Aspen View support return to in-person classes

Province pledges to begin shipping out additional masks, rapid tests to schools to protect students and staff
As the sign outside of Barrhead Elementary School says, in-person classes for K-12 students were set to resume Jan. 10 after Alberta Education extended the winter break for a week. Education minister Adriana LaGrange made the announcement on Jan. 5 that K-12 classes will resume as scheduled, but schools will be receiving additional masks and rapid tests to help protect against the spread of the Omicron variant.

The board chairs of the Pembina Hills and Aspen View school divisions both expressed approval last week of the province’s decision to have in-person Kindergarten to Grade 12 classes resume throughout Alberta Jan. 10 despite of rising COVID-10 cases. 

On Dec. 30, the province announced that the winter break would be extended for a week to allow Alberta school jurisdictions to plan for potential staff absences, 

Then, on Jan. 5, Alberta Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange announced that K-12 students would be resuming in-person classes as scheduled on Jan. 10, and schools would begin receiving shipments of additional rapid tests and medical-grade masks towards the end of the week. 

“Children who learn in-person belong in the classroom, and they will be there with the added safety of rapid tests and medical grade masks,” said LaGrange, noting that the additional masks and tests were on top of whatever measures already taken by school jurisdictions like vaccine policies for staff and social distancing. 

School authorities were informed of the province’s decision during a Zoom call with LaGrange prior to the Jan. 5 announcement. 

Pembina Hills board chair Judy Lefebvre said the division was in favour of resuming in-person classes on Jan. 10 as scheduled. 

“We thought we were well-prepared in all of our schools, and with the government providing extra masks and rapid tests, we figure we may as well forge ahead,” Lefebvre said. 

Lefebvre noted that based on what she had seen online, the majority of school jurisdictions throughout Alberta were in favour of resuming in-person classes Jan. 10, although there were a few exceptions. 

When asked about whether potential staffing shortages from COVID infections, Lefebvre noted she had been in regular contact with Pembina Hills Supt. Michael Borgfjord. 

She said the superintendent had met with local school principals to make sure all was ready to go on Jan. 10, and she had not received any indication that Pembina Hills would have staffing shortages when classes resumed. 

Aspen View Public Schools board chair Candy Nikipelo indicated they were hopeful that students and staff could resume in-person classes as scheduled and that they would be able to finish out the semester in-person. 

“It just seems to be changing every week, but we just hope that we can keep our in-school learning for sure. That's the goal of the government, the entire province, to keep everybody healthy so that we can keep the in-school learning going,” she added. 

School returns 

During the Jan. 5 news conference, LaGrange said she and her team had taken into consideration the input of school authorities and had looked carefully at  what was being done in other nearby provinces, citing B.C. and Manitoba specifically. 

Like Alberta, B.C. had opted to keep K-12 students home for another week, but then announced plans to resume most in-person classes on Jan. 10. Children of essential workers and those with special needs could return approximately a week earlier.

Manitoba, meanwhile, had also opted to extend the winter break for a week, but is now set on resuming in-person classes Jan. 17 after a week of remote learning. 

LaGrange also pointed out that in New York City, where public school students had spent the previous school year learning online, in-person classes were set to resume following the holiday break in spite of the threat posed by the omicron variant. 

“Experts across Canada and around the world continue to stress the importance of in-person learning to the overall health of our children and our youth,” she said. 

“I myself have heard overwhelmingly from families that learning in-person is best for children. Most children feel more connected, they learn better, and generally thrive when they are at school in-person.” 

LaGrange said that Alberta Education would work closely with school authorities to support shifts to at-home learning for individual classrooms or grades if necessary, though jurisdiction-wide shifts would still fall under the province’s purview. 

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said the province is well aware of the impacts that being away from the classroom can have on children’s mental health, learning and social development. 

“There are no perfect, completely risk-free solutions available to us or any jurisdiction around the world, and I believe the provincial approach balances the many competing risks that our children face,” Hinshaw said. 

She also pointed out that the risk of COVID infection resulting in serious illness is lower amongst children, though not zero. 

With that in mind, she encouraged parents to get their children vaccinated, noting that a recent publication from the U.S. Centre for Disease Control affirmed the safety of vaccination in children ages five to 11. The CDC found that after 8.7 million doses of vaccine had been administered to that age group, the vast majority of children experienced only mild reactions. (Only 11 children reported myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle.) 

Acknowledging that gaps in learning resulting from the pandemic are still an issue, LaGrange noted that the province would be launching an online e-Tutoring hub this week to help Grade 4-9 students catch up on important skills and learning. 

This new resource would build on the $45 million in learning supports for K-3 students announced by the province prior to Christmas.

-with files from Heather Stocking

About the Author: Kevin Berger

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