ATA says start of school year may be delayed to allow for COVID preparation

Sign outside Wilma Hansen School in southeast Calgary on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.

The Alberta Teachers’ Association says the province is seriously considering delaying the start of the K-12 school year until after Labour Day in an effort to allow for more planning to reduce the risk of COVID-19.

After sitting down with Education Minister Adriana LaGrange Wednesday, ATA president Jason Schilling says the concerns of his membership around a safer school start were heard, and he is confident the minister is looking at pushing back the start of classes to Sept. 8.

“The minister listened to our concerns and I feel she has a better understanding of them now than she did before,” Schilling said.

“Nothing was formally agreed to, but I expect we will be hearing more from the minister about these important issues, including a delay to the start of school to allow teachers and principals to prepare for the arrival of students.”

Schilling said the ATA brought forward six additional requests to the province to reduce the risk of COVID-19 including the formation of a stakeholder working group, a clearer plan for switching to different scenarios, better physical distancing through reduced class sizes, additional funding for increased cleaning of schools, better plans for ongoing screening and testing of students and staff, as well as clear availability and supports of substitute teachers.

LaGrange, however, did not comment on the meeting in detail or address the possibility of delaying the start of school, saying only the province was pleased with the meeting and will remain open to change.

“I was pleased to meet with the Alberta Teachers’ Association today to discuss the upcoming return to school next month. We look forward to an ongoing dialogue as this process unfolds,” the minister’s emailed statement said.

“We will continue to follow the expert medical advice of our Chief Medical Officer of Health, who approved our school re-entry plan and who, along with her team, worked to develop the health guidelines for schools. The plan also has support from our school superintendents and school boards and was developed in consultation with the education system as a whole.

“As we continue to work with Dr. Hinshaw and our education system, we will make adjustments as necessary.”

Schilling hopes the most significant “adjustment” will be to delay the first day of school, originally planned for Tuesday, Sept. 1, in most school districts, to the following Tuesday, Sept. 8.

 Education Minister Adriana LaGrange meets with ATA president Jason Schilling in Edmonton.

The ATA has heard from dozens of administrators and teachers asking for more time to plan for teaching students about new health protocols.

“We are taking a medical plan put forward by the chief medical officer of health and trying to turn it into an educational plan and teachers and administrators need time to reconcile those two … we need time to get this right.”

Schilling added the minister did promise to go back to local school districts over the next several days to check if they are in favour of delaying the start of school as well.

Creative solutions to improve ventilation and reduce class sizes were also discussed, Schilling said.

The ATA suggested hiring back teachers that were laid off in the spring to deal with “hot spots” in overcrowded schools, and the province may look to purchase portable air filters for some schools that face poor ventilation.

“What we really need is a full audit of what we have in schools and where we need upgrades.”

Schilling also raised concerns about

substitute teachers

and whether they will have to work in multiple locations and increase the risk of COVID-19 exposure.

“The government now has to act, and we will continue to advocate to ensure school opens as safely and as orderly as possible.”

The ATA was also part of a joint statement with three other unions Wednesday including the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the Alberta Union of Public Employees and Unifor, demanding the province do more to provide enough cleaning and custodial staff to ensure schools are safe.

A delayed start to school may also give 90,000-plus Alberta teachers more time to receive asymptomatic testing.

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw is asking teachers to receive testing before they enter schools as part of an expanded testing program at pharmacies across Alberta.

Alberta Health Services reported 82 new cases of COVID-19 in the province Wednesday, as well as two additional deaths. Of the 1,107 active cases across Alberta, 48 people are in hospital, with 12 in intensive care units.

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