Parents anxious about making back-to-school decisions on tight deadline, little information

Jessica Cuillerier, with her two boys, says she's worried about whether she should send them back to the Catholic school district classrooms this fall.

Feeling anxious and angry, parents of kindergarten to Grage 12 students are facing a looming deadline that forces them to decide whether to keep their kids home or send them back to school this fall with little information on what classrooms will look like.

“I have so much anxiety right now. I still have not decided, I probably won’t decide until the last second,” said Jessica Cuillerier, who has two boys in grades 1 and 5 at St. Rose of Lima School in the city’s northeast.

“My oldest, he’s pretty good at wearing a mask, but he has asthma. And my youngest, I have a hard time stopping him from licking the banister at home.”

Cuillerier is outraged over an Aug. 21 deadline set by the Calgary Catholic School District asking parents to either register for online-only schooling or in-person classes.

Parents at the Calgary Board of Education are facing the same decision, with a deadline of Aug. 24. Once parents choose, they cannot change their minds until the new year.

But many schools won’t be able to tell parents how large their children’s class sizes will be until the online registration process is complete.

“So many parents I have spoken to are feeling really frustrated at the lack of information,” Cuillerier added.

“It is in no way realistic to ask parents to decide something this important when they have no idea what the plans are for their school.”

The UCP government has announced that K-12 students can

go back to school this fall,

with no new funding to reduce class sizes in overcrowded schools, leaving many teachers and students with the prospect of spending their days in tight, crowded classes of 30 or more.

On Friday, both the Calgary Catholic School District and the Calgary Board of Education announced that

masks will be mandatory for all K-12 students

when physical distancing is not possible.

But school staff have still raised concerns around the potential for confusion, particularly in spaces where students, teachers and educational assistants are moving around and masks may come off and on several times during the day.

Both school boards also vow cleaning protocols will be ramped up. They are also asking parents to be patient as individual schools will address physical distancing challenges in classes, lunchrooms and at recess according to their own school populations.

But parents say it’s not enough, and that the most proven way to reduce the risk of COVID-19 through smaller class sizes is being ignored by the province and school districts.

“When it comes to class sizes, the government has completely downloaded its responsibility to the districts, and now the districts are downloading to schools and principals. And it’s creating a lot of fear and uncertainty,” said Medeana Moussa, who has kids attending Chinook Park Elementary and advocates for the Coalition for Safer AB Schools.

“We are also getting no information on cohort strategies, on quarantine protocol when someone tests positive, and how that will impact families.

“There is no information, there is a lack of engagement, yet we’re expected to make these difficult decisions.”

Related

Joanne Pitman, CBE superintendent for school improvement, explained the district has to first plan for staffing to support online learning versus in-class learning. And if students are allowed to switch once those resources are set, it will cause too much disruption.

“We understand the challenges that families are facing. But we have to be thoughtful about how we move forward.”

Bryan Szumlas, chief superintendent for the separate school district, explained that Catholic parents may be offered another window to re-register after September if they are unhappy with their initial choice of online or in-person learning, although he’s not yet sure when.

“I feel the anxiety in our parents and I want to do everything I can to help them,” he said. “We just have to be patient, and we will get through this. We all have a role to play.”

Sarah Bieber, who has kids in grades 4, 7, 8 and 10, will send all of them back into public schools.

But as the spokeswoman for the Kids Come First advocacy group, Bieber is hearing a lot of frustration from parents around being forced to make a decision for online or in-class, with no option to change their minds until January.

“Why can’t the CBE address what would happen to a student if one option is just not working for them?” she said. “What if they try the online learning hub, but it’s a disaster? Or what if in-class isn’t working for a number of reasons?

“We don’t even know what happens if a student has symptoms, yet it could potentially impact so many lives.”

 Sarah Bieber poses for a photo with her children Kai, Cora and Halle in their southwest home in January.

Barb Silva, spokeswoman for Support Our Students student advocacy group, is torn with the decision she has to make for both of her children, one in elementary and one in middle school at the CBE.

“I really struggle with this, not just daily, but hourly. I’m struggling with prioritizing my children’s health, considering the continuity of their education, their childhood, there are so many questions.”

Silva said she is also concerned about changing data on children and COVID-19.

“The only data we really have is from the early days of the pandemic, when the movement of children was very restricted. But now as kids go back, especially in the U.S., that data is changing.”

Earlier this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report noting a 90 per cent increase in COVID-19 cases among children over the past month as many start heading back to school.

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