‘Beyond disappointed’: Calgary teachers, parents protest UCP school re-entry plan

Protesters draw chalk messages on the sidewalk in front of Health Minister Tyler Shandro's constituency office in southwest Calgary on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020.

Alberta parents and teachers protested in front of the offices of United Conservative government MLAs Friday, demanding more funding and safety measures ahead of the planned September return to schools.

In total, 27 small rallies took place across Alberta, with 14 in Calgary, including at offices of prominent UCP MLAs such as Health Minister Tyler Shandro in Calgary-Acadia.

Outside Shandro’s office, about 15 teachers, parents and students waved signs and wrote chalk slogans like “Classrooms before war rooms” and “The future deserves funding.” They protested across the street from the constituency office after security staff kicked them off the property and washed chalk off the sidewalk.

Gurmit Bhachu, a kindergarten teacher at Bridlewood Elementary School, helped organize the rally at Shandro’s office.

“(The UCP) is using the start of the school year to push their agenda further by not funding schools properly. We know there’s going to be issues,” Bhachu said.

“We’re being asked to do a lot more than what our job requires us to do…The government is giving us no guidance. We need some minimum standards and some minimum protocols for all teachers so that we know what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.”

 Kindergarten teacher Gurmit Bhachu protests in front of Health Minister Tyler Shandro’s constituency office in Calgary on Friday.

Bhachu is slated to teach two classes of 22 students each. He said he would need to see a cap on class sizes at 15 students to feel comfortable about the return to school.

“It’s absolutely a concern for me,” he said. “If we have fewer students in each class, it would be a lot easier to spread them out and stop the spread of this virus.”

The protests come

as anxieties grow

about the province’s re-entry plan, with concerns growing around topics like ventilation, sanitation and staffing.

The UCP government announced in July that

kindergarten to Grade 12 students will return to classrooms

starting in September, with no funding directed towards reducing class sizes. Officials later added a requirement that students from Grades 4 to 12 wear masks when physical distancing was not possible, though the Calgary Board of Education and the Calgary Catholic School District each

widened that mandate to include all students


Also Friday, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange tweeted that the province would not be delaying the start of the school year, though individual school districts have the autonomy to do so if they choose.

The announcement comes after Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling said a meeting with LaGrange led to the province considering a week-long delay to the start of the school year, to better help schools prepare for students’ return.

“The school re-entry plan, as written, already provides local school authorities with the autonomy and flexibility to ensure local needs are met and to prepare schools for a safe re-entry,” LaGrange tweeted.

The Toronto Public School Board announced Thursday it was delaying the start of its school year until Sept. 15, with reductions to class sizes in the neighbourhoods of the city hardest hit by the novel coronavirus. British Columbia has also pushed back its return-to-school date.

Calgary mom Rene Martin is sending her daughter back to school this September, with online learning not feasible due to her own career.

Martin said her daughter is in a school that has relatively small class sizes and adequate plans for online learning, but she added that she’s still “terrified” about the situation, given there are immuno-compromised people close to the family.

“Money should be spent on safety for kids, and in general, (the government) needs to spend more money on education,” she said.

“I hope the UCP MLAs realize this isn’t what people voted for. We believe in our education system and we believe in our health system and we hope they realize that we are beyond disappointed with how they’ve been handling the pandemic and their own portfolios.”

Henry Wise Wood high school teacher Steve Yanover expects to teach classes that will have as many as 38 students, similar to his class sizes the previous year. He said he thinks the province should move to “Scenario 2” for school re-entry, which would see in-person classes only partially resume.

 High school teacher Stephen Yanover protests in front of Tyler Shandro’s office.

“With that scenario, you can transition as the evidence points you in that direction. If things go to hell, maybe you can go to Scenario 3. If it’s not so bad, nobody’s lost out on their education,” he said. “With Scenario 1, the only place to go is down.”

The province calls Scenario 1 a “near-normal” situation.

During her Thursday press conference, Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw stood behind the government’s school re-entry plan, reiterating that while some COVID-19 cases will likely emerge, the tradeoff is worthwhile.

“We must take the pandemic seriously and we also must look at the whole picture,” she said. “As a parent of school-age children, I have decided that the value of in-school learning outweighs the risk to my family. That’s why I’m sending my children back to school in September.”

In an email to parents Thursday, the CBE updated its re-entry plans.

The school board plans to post a series of videos next week detailing new health measures in classrooms and on school buses. They will also release guidelines on mask use, including where and when masks must be worn, when students will be given breaks from mask use and who may be exempted.

The CBE also said all schools had received their initial shipment of materials to help with physical distancing, as well as cleaning supplies and masks for staff. School plans are expected to be posted on school websites by the end of August.

Parents with children in the CBE must make their decision about whether to enrol in remote learning by Monday at 4 p.m. The deadline for the Catholic district is 11:59 p.m. Friday.

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Twitter: @jasonfherring

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