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Keeping Students, Staff and Families Safe and Schools Open During the Coronavirus Pandemic

2020 11 16

As the coronavirus pandemic continues through the fall months and into the winter, the Alberta Teachers’ Association has been providing multiple avenues for teachers to give voice to their experience of returning to school.

In advance of school re-entry, the Association made multiple submissions to government, some in writing, others in the course of formal meetings and in direct contact with officials. To be clear, teachers want to be back in schools with students, but need ongoing assurance that student, staff and community safety is a priority.

Several weeks have passed since students and staff returned to school buildings. There continue to be many issues that have not yet been addressed, in addition to new concerns that have subsequently emerged and also require attention. The purpose of this brief is to highlight the key conditions necessary to keep schools open and safe during the coronavirus pandemic. These recommendations are based on Association research that elicited the voices of thousands of teachers in the field as well as comments shared by teachers to their elected Association representatives.

The data cited in this document are derived from three pulse surveys of a random stratified and longitudinal chain referral sampling of Alberta teachers conducted by the Association over the first weeks and months since the start of school in the fall of 2020. Complete information about the pulse surveys can be found on the Association website: www.teachers.ab.ca > News and Info > Issues > COVID-19 > 2020-21 Pandemic Research and Reports > Teacher Pandemic Pulse Survey Results - Fall 2020.

 

Eight Immediate Actions for Alberta K–12 Schools

Action 1: Reduce class size for physical distancing
Reduce class sizes to allow for physical distancing similar to what is required in all other settings in the province.

Action 2: Enhance well-being supports for all
Provide supports for staff, students and families to manage fatigue and anxiety, and support well-being.

Action 3: Support school leadership and reduce bureaucratic tasks
Increase funding to schools to add to the time available for school leaders.

Action 4: Address critical substitute teacher shortages
Provide supports to substitute teachers.

Action 5: Address educational assistant shortages
Increase funding to schools to hire additional educational assistants.

Action 6: Allow teachers to attend to professional concerns, while respecting occupational health and safety obligations
Increase caretaking staff to safely and effectively manage cleaning requirements in schools.

Action 7: Eliminate high-stakes testing regimes and initiatives
Eliminate new school and district initiatives and unnecessary testing.

Action 8: Improve information reliability and transparency of decision making
Provide consistent, accurate, timely information.

 

 

Action 1: Reduce class size for physical distancing

Reduce class sizes to allow for physical distancing similar to what is required in all other settings in the province.

The Chief Medical Officer of Health appears in the media several times per week, pleading for Albertans to maintain physical distancing and to severely limit the size and number of their cohorts. It remains unclear to teachers, staff, students and parents why physical distancing consistent with her guidelines and mandates is not required for those in K–12 schools. Surely the virus does not behave differently when it enters a school building.

Class size is a key factor in successfully implementing physical distancing protocols. The Alberta Teachers’ Association has been advocating for smaller class sizes from the beginning of school re-entry discussions. Teachers are reporting that, despite COVID-19, their class sizes are bigger than ever, creating situations where physical distancing of any sort is impossible during the school day.

Smaller class sizes will help reduce the risk of spread when COVID-19 enters schools, aid in contact tracing efforts and reduce the interruptions to parents and students by requiring fewer students to self-isolate when exposure occurs.

The Association is not suggesting that a hard cap of 15 students per classroom is required or even practicable, but class sizes should be made to be as small as possible under the circumstances.

Complicating matters is that the province is entering the coldest months of the year, and the opportunity to spend large amounts of time outside or to open windows for ventilation is not available. A lack of physical distancing and poor ventilation have the potential to create unsustainable conditions in schools over the winter months. One teacher reported to a study, “We can’t effectively distance due to class sizes. Classrooms are too small for the group. Furniture doesn’t allow for students to face the same direction …”

We urge the government to attend to ventilation issues that have been highlighted in our earlier submissions and to look at school buildings through the lens of a coronavirus reality, which is different from meeting typical building code standards.

The amount of funding required to reduce class size should not be the core constraint or determining factor in this matter. Rather, these decisions should be driven by a concern for the health and well-being of everyone in the school. It is incumbent upon the Government of Alberta to add funding to the system to reduce class sizes and match or better the funding that was provided by the federal government.

 

Action 2: Enhance well-being supports for all

Provide supports for staff, students and families to manage fatigue and anxiety, and support well-being.

There are significant additional demands placed on teachers when students must be away from school for brief or extended periods of time. It takes a great deal of time for teachers to organize school work that these students can engage in while they are away. This year these demands have been overwhelming. Ninety-four per cent of respondents in a fall survey reported feeling increased levels of fatigue, 95 per cent reported excessive stress and 81 per cent reported anxiety. With the school year just under way, these levels will not be sustainable and will result in increased teacher illness and mental health issues. Three of four respondents to an Association study indicate moderate or extreme concern with physical distancing in classrooms and hallways.

Hiring additional teachers would go a long way to provide support for the overwhelming demands faced by teachers who have moved to online instruction. These teachers report having very large classroom loads with accompanying demands that are substantial. One teacher said, “Online instruction requirements are far heavier than in the spring in time online and number of subjects. Preparing materials for online takes much longer. It is the general consensus among my online grade level learning community that the number of hours we are working to get everything done is unsustainable.”

 

Action 3: Support school leadership and reduce bureaucratic tasks

Increase funding to schools to add to the time available for school leaders.

School leaders are reporting that besides the very time-intensive tasks typically involved with leadership, they are being asked to undertake cleaning, contact tracing and health surveillance of families in isolation, and to cover classes and increase their own supervision duties, among other bureaucratic tasks. It is the work of Alberta Health Services (AHS) to notify those with positive results and to perform the contact tracing. With the burden of many additional duties and the responsibility of principals to ensure the continuity of learning in the school, it is not possible for school leaders to perform the work of AHS.

School divisions should also be directed to set aside any and all novel and unnecessary demands made of school leaders that do not directly relate to fundamental learning in schools, student and staff wellness, or management of schools in a pandemic.

One school leader reported, “The work load from parent questions and concerns is completely time-consuming right now. We are unable to get any other work done during the day. As a result, all the other work gets done in the evenings and weekends. I’m exhausted, emotionally drained and overwhelmed from being held responsible for every student’s health and well-being. I’m not being asked educational questions. I’m only being asked health guideline questions. Currently I’m a public health advisor, not an educator.”

 

Action 4: Address critical substitute teacher shortages

Provide supports to substitute teachers.

It is clear that there are already critical shortages of substitute teachers across the province. For many, the danger of contracting COVID-19 and possibly not having access to health benefits or sick pay is simply too much risk to bear. Many substitute teachers are retired and are therefore, by age, part of a vulnerable population. Substitute teachers must be provided with benefits and sick time in consideration of their unique needs. Expediting the ability of education students who graduate in December to begin substitute teaching will be a critical strategy for adding to substitute teacher rosters in the new year. Putting these teachers on contract is one way to ensure that they receive benefits stability, and this would be an excellent use of additional funding either previously provided by the federal government or future investments made by the province.

 

Action 5: Address educational assistant shortages

Increase funding to schools to hire additional educational assistants.

Educational assistants play an important role, including supporting students with diverse needs. Enhancing such supports for students is particularly important during this time of uncertainty. Previously existing gaps in supports for students with diverse learning needs have been exacerbated by the pandemic’s impacts on schools. Additional educational assistants are needed to support the work of teachers and the needs of students learning in online and in-person scenarios. “With our class sizes being as large as they are, with little to no EA support, increased supervisions and an expectation to also manage online learners, in addition to all the health policies and procedures in place, there leaves little time to do what I love to do—teach.”

Educational assistants may also provide assistance with the preparation of materials and other administrative tasks that can be very time-consuming, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.

 

Action 6: Allow teachers to attend to professional concerns, while respecting occupational health and safety obligations

Increase caretaking staff to safely and effectively manage cleaning requirements in schools.

Teachers are reporting that they are being asked to perform cleaning duties that, in some cases, take up to an hour each day. These are hours spent on cleaning that could be better used preparing lessons, assessing student work and collaborating with colleagues. In an Association study, 85 per cent of all teachers and school leaders are taking on cleaning and/or sanitization tasks in their classrooms and schools. There are also reports that teachers are being asked to use cleaning products that they are not trained to use; they are unaware of exactly what these solutions might be and any hazards associated with using them. In addition, for many teachers, there have been no hazard assessments completed, even after two months of being back in school buildings.

 

Action 7: Postpone high-stakes testing regimes and initiatives

Postpone new school and district initiatives and unnecessary testing.

School jurisdictions often have a number of initiatives running at any given time in a typical year. This year is anything but typical, and the levels of anxiety and exhaustion early in the school year are unprecedented. While such initiatives can be valuable, adding more onto the plates of teachers will not be sustainable this year. We therefore call on school authorities and the province to postpone indefinitely any new or otherwise unessential initiatives that will add an extra burden to staff and students.

This includes standardized testing at the district and provincial levels that adds to the already unsustainable administrative loads of teachers and the mental/emotional loads of students. Much instructional time is being lost, both this year and last, as a result of COVID-19, and instructional time is best used to help students learn instead of preparing and implementing testing regimes that provide very little useful information. Teachers use a variety of classroom-based assessments every day to help determine student needs and to drive instruction that is more effective and better for students.

 

Action 8: Improve information reliability and transparency of decision making

Provide consistent, accurate, timely information.

Consistent messaging is necessary to increase the confidence of school staff, students and parents. An example of confusing messaging involves cohorting, what it is and how it should be used in a school setting. In an Association study, teachers observed students’ presence in many more than the recommended cohorts during the day. It is also unclear for families how cohorting at school may impact the additional cohorts that a family might have. The recent changes to the list of symptoms is another example of changes that create confusion in schools.

Eighty-one per cent of Alberta teachers reported concern with the transparency of government decision making. Additionally, 64 per cent report that it is difficult to judge the reliability of information provided by the Government of Alberta on COVID-19 in schools. One teacher said, “Nothing feels clear coming from the government or the school boards. It’s hard to know what to do.” Clarity and consistency breed confidence, and this is sorely needed in the system. It is also essential that the criteria for transitioning between scenarios are clear.

Finally, it is unacceptable that, as the first week of November arrives, Alberta still has not activated the national COVID-19 tracing application available for mobile devices. Adopting the national app could assist in the timely identification and notification of persons in contact with those infected so that they can take immediate steps to reduce the spread. A large majority of staff and students (particularly those in junior and senior high grades) possess smartphones and could take advantage of the app and, in doing so, contribute to containment of infection both in school and in the community.

 

Closing Thoughts

The Association appreciates the opportunity to meet regularly with government officials and other stakeholders. This is one, positive step toward consistent information gathering and dissemination. We encourage the Ministry of Education to continue with these efforts as long as they are fruitful. We also understand that school cases are driven through community spread, which is unfortunately at a record high at this time. We also call upon school authorities to ensure that federal funds to offset the additional costs created by the complexities added through managing a pandemic be used fully at the school level.

Prior to the beginning of the school year, the Association published seven priorities for successful and safe re-entry to Alberta school buildings (see www.teachers.ab.ca> News and Info > Issues > COVID-19 > 2020 School Re-entry > Teachers’ Priorities for Successful and Safe Re-Entry to Alberta School Buildings). Other aspects of the re-entry submissions made by the Association remain unanswered. As the coldest months of the year approach, with increased opportunity for transmission in both schools and communities, the government must take immediate action to address the remaining and emergent concerns, many identified in this brief. The health and safety of students, staff, families and the community are at stake. We can think of nothing more important.