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Teachers’ Priorities for Successful and Safe Re-Entry to Alberta School Buildings

Over the last three months, the Alberta Teachers’ Association has been invited to make several formal representations to the Government of Alberta and has engaged in additional informal dialogue with Alberta Education officials and with representatives of the College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS) concerning the conditions that must be in place if and as schools restart in September in the face of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. A record of the formal submissions and the government’s responses may be found on the Association’s website at www.teachers.ab.ca. As the Association has not been privy to or participated directly in the Ministry’s decision-making process, it is unclear to what extent (if at all) its representations on behalf of teachers have influenced the direction of government policy. What is clear is that as of the beginning of August, significant concerns remain about the government plan (Alberta Education 2020) to restart school under its Scenario 1 (“in-school classes resume near normal with health measures”). For reference, Scenario 2 is “in-school classes partially resume (with additional health measures)” and Scenario 3 is “at home learning continues (in-school classes are suspended/cancelled).”

Association surveys have demonstrated that teachers’ first preference is to resume face-to-face, congregated schooling—what was the norm for the overwhelming majority of students before the March 2020 closure of school facilities and adoption of emergency distance education—but to do so under conditions that protect student, staff and community safety. This reflects the consensus among public health experts and the scientific community that the continuing shutdown of schools itself threatens the health and well-being of children and is to the greatest disadvantage of the most disadvantaged in our society.

Just a month before the scheduled start of “near normal” schooling (Alberta Education 2020), and with the benefit of research done during the early months of the pandemic (Alberta Teachers’ Association 2020), it is reasonable to characterize the mood of students, parents and teachers generally as one of anxiety and concern. This is exacerbated by shifting and conflicting messages and policy responses emanating within and between various levels of government and different expert authorities municipally, provincially, nationally and even internationally. The apparent reluctance of Alberta Education to set adequate, clear and enforceable standards with respect to school operations come September has not helped. It has created a policy vacuum that individual school authorities are expected to fill, with resulting inconsistencies, some of which will likely become apparent even between neighbouring schools.

We do not deny that establishing such standards and a larger policy framework is immensely challenging. These are unprecedented circumstances and there are no simple solutions that are clearly and objectively correct in any one circumstance, let alone the diversity of circumstances facing schools across the province. Furthermore, in the context of education, the standards and policies set in response to the pandemic must seek to balance science (what we are learning about the coronavirus and contagion), semiotics (what signals and messages, overt and covert, are being sent and received and what their emotional, social and psychological impact might be), and pedagogy (the body of knowledge about effective teaching and learning practices). Finally, the events of the last six months have made it abundantly clear that the public education system plays an essential role in facilitating economic activity; maintaining social norms and order; and protecting and supporting children and families who are facing a wide variety of pressures, threats and challenges. While not directly related to the mission of public education, these are still important factors that must be accounted for in the formation of public policy around a return to schooling.

Key to a successful return to school is the creation of confidence among parents, teachers, staff, students and the community in the face of continuing uncertainty. It may not be possible to eliminate risk in the current circumstances, but those participating in public education should believe that the risk they will be undertaking has been minimized and is reasonable, and that their fears and concerns are being heard, understood and actively attended to as a priority. Regrettably, all indications are that, at this moment, the necessary confidence is sorely lacking. The Alberta Teachers’ Association is anxious to promote measures that will build confidence among teachers and, as teachers are key influencers, in the larger community.

The purpose of this document, then, is to set out minimum expectations of the Association as at the beginning of August 2020, one month before a potential restart of in-school education. These expectations are consistent with previous representations made to government but have been reduced in an effort to emphasize priorities.

We note as well that these priority expectations reflect our best understanding at this point in time, and as more information becomes available and additional plans and strategies for Alberta and other jurisdictions are developed, they too may evolve.

In particular, this document reflects the best science available as of the beginning of August 2020. As more jurisdictions resume schooling under various models, the position of the Alberta Teachers’ Association can be expected to adapt to reflect new learning.


Priority Expectations of Alberta Teachers Respecting the Return to School During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The teachers of Alberta call upon the Government of Alberta to:

1. Form a multistakeholder/multisector working group that includes representation of teachers (through the Alberta Teachers’ Association), parents (through the Alberta School Councils’ Association), superintendents and trustees (through their respective organizations), Public Health, Alberta Education, and other stakeholders, to advise on common standards and approaches that will inform school re-entry plans, operating standards and policy direction in response to changing epidemiology and other external circumstances.

Alberta’s education system operates within the framework of a common set of standards that govern curriculum, evaluation, teaching quality, governance, health and safety, physical plant and financial operations. These standards create confidence in the system and contribute to public assurance. The provincial response to the pandemic must be articulated in a clear set of standards with reasonable, but limited, local flexibility to address specific contexts. Declining to establish standards in the hope that autonomous school authorities will step into the breach leaves too much to chance, is fundamentally inefficient and will create uncertainty (the antithesis of confidence).

The Association supports and aspires to participate in the creation of a framework of standards for a return to school that is tight enough to guarantee a fundamental level of safety for staff and students and broad enough to allow variation to reflect situations specific to individual schools and communities. Thus far, some of the well-intended guidelines in Alberta Education’s school re-entry plan (for example, the expectation that young students will spend the day sitting in desks arranged in orderly rows) reveal a fundamental lack of understanding of what daily life is like in a classroom, which is why it is important to have teachers involved in the process. Furthermore, teachers and other stakeholders must not be passive recipients of information and decisions made by others. Rather, they need to be actively engaged in the discussion and setting of these standards and guidelines, now and throughout the pandemic, as the situation and scientific knowledge continue to evolve. The Toronto District School Board (2020) has made salutary progress to this end by forming a Return to School and Work Steering Committee and related subcommittees to engage in an ongoing way with communities, teachers’ associations, staff, parents/guardians and students.

From the perspective of those outside the Government of Alberta, decision making to date has occurred inside a “black box.” While there have been some opportunities for education partners to make submissions, those made by the Association on behalf of teachers appear to have had little or no influence on the decisions made. For example, the opportunity to provide submissions relating to summer school re-entry was extended with only days to respond, and only one day after the deadline government released the same document that stakeholders had been provided with for feedback without any significant changes.

If confidence is to be built, meaningful and sincere efforts must be undertaken to understand the realities of the classroom and the level of fear and anxiety that is present. A Facebook Live event on July 28, 2020, with Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange and Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw, drew thousands of people, and the majority of comments made throughout the broadcast were really thousands of expressions of fear, which were not substantively addressed. Major stakeholders in the education system, as well as public health officials, must be involved and engage in ongoing dialogue now and throughout the year. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) direction on COVID-19 and school reopening, “Consultation and communication with parents, teachers, students and communities at large are necessary to understand concerns and address them. This ensures the confidence and support to school reopening that is a prerequisite for informing policies, financing and operational measures” (Giannini 2020, para 8).

The guidance currently being provided by Alberta Education is so general that each school authority is spending a great deal of time and effort to create its own individual plans. An overall plan including specific standards could be provided by Alberta Education, eliminating much duplication of effort. Alberta Education should house materials that are being developed by school authorities so that they can learn from one another.

2. Ensure that scenario implementation responds to community spread while providing clear information about how schools will transition between scenarios, if necessary.

Alberta Education has stipulated that the decision about which of its scenarios for schooling will be implemented will be determined at its sole discretion, but the department has not articulated how this will happen or what condition or set of conditions would trigger the move from one scenario to another. In the plans detailed in other jurisdictions (for example, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [2020] and the Pennsylvania Department of Education [2020]), the guiding factor is community spread, and an indication of trigger levels is provided. Following this model, the “new normal,” or Scenario 1, would be enacted only if there were no growth in community spread within a specified time period. Scenario 2 would be enacted if there were some or moderate growth in community spread, and Scenario 3 in the case of an active, uncontrolled outbreak. These standards should be objective and should be clearly articulated in advance. Schools in different communities might be implementing different scenarios. 

Related to this is the need to take measures with respect to activities that might not be directly related to education but which are necessary to drive down the rates of infection in the larger community. The best available science to date appears to indicate that schools are unlikely to generate contagion but will reflect rates of contagion in the larger community. A full-court press in the weeks ahead to contain the spread of COVID-19, including a potential ban on activities likely to promote infection, is necessary so that schools can be reopened safely.

Furthermore, given that incidence rates of COVID-19 infection in Alberta appeared to be rising as of late July, serious consideration should be given to delaying implementation of a Scenario 1 return to schooling and striving instead to implement Scenario 2 protocols. Ontario’s plans for restart do exactly this. By taking active measures to enable distancing by reducing class and school sizes in senior high school grades through alternate-day schooling and cohorting and by mandating the wearing of masks for staff and most students, Ontario will be better positioned to transition toward more normal schooling as the adequacy of its policy response and student, staff and community safety is demonstrated. Such an approach will be more conducive to building and maintaining stakeholder confidence than Alberta’s less incremental and more optimistic approach, particularly if things do not go well immediately after start-up.

3. Ensure the reduction of viral spread by increasing outdoor air exchange and improving ventilation and filtering.

The guidance provided to school authorities in this regard has been very general, even though very specific things can be done to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. For example, a Harvard School of Public Health document entitled Schools for Health: Risk Reduction Strategies for Reopening Schools (Jones et al 2020) calls for a prioritization of engineering controls that reduce long-range airborne transmission of the virus. These need not be onerous. For example, if schools have open system dampers, they should be employed, and if not, windows should be opened. As this will not always be possible in Alberta, particularly as the epidemic stretches into the winter months, then modification of heat, air ventilation and cooling (HVAC) systems should be considered.

Much of Alberta’s school HVAC infrastructure is fairly antiquated, and solutions such as opening windows and holding class outside will not be generally possible, given Alberta’s climate. As suggested in the Harvard document, in these circumstances, consideration must be given to identifying technologies that facilitate air filtering and exchange that can be implemented in classrooms in short order, with minimal changes to the physical structure of existing schools. For example, “portable air cleaners with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters may be useful to reduce exposures to airborne droplets and aerosols emitted from infectious individuals in buildings” (p 35).

The Harvard document provides a “decision tree of general ventilation operation guidance for COVID-19” (p 34) that could be used by school authorities to assess and improve the ventilation of every school building. Other strategies in the document could be used, including maintaining indoor relative humidity between 40 and 60 per cent and having a minimum, clear cleaning schedule that will be followed in schools. The report notes that “public health interventions only work when there is training and reinforcement” (p 41).

4. Create the conditions for social distancing by creating smaller classes, and mandate the wearing of masks or face shields in schools and on buses if social distancing is not possible.

There is evidence that Alberta’s classrooms were crowded long before COVID-19. In a 2018 report published in the Edmonton Journal (French 2018), nearly a third of Calgary public high school classes had 35 or more students. On average, there are many more students in classrooms than was recommended by Alberta’s Commission on Learning (2003) and often in physically small spaces. With the arrival of COVID-19, what was a serious pedagogical problem has become an urgent public health issue.

In a report on the reopening of schools during COVID-19, all but one of the five countries studied reduced class sizes if students were not able to be distanced by two metres (Melnick and Darling-Hammond 2020). In the case of the one country that did not reduce class sizes (Taiwan), students wore masks except during lunch, when they used dividers to create a blocked-off space to eat (Taylor et al 2020). If we rely on science and use the measure shown to be most effective (short of a vaccine), scientists agree that distancing by two metres is the safest option, as detailed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization (Melnick and Darling-Hammond 2020). Some social distancing may be made possible by using school spaces in different ways (such as identifying alternative spaces in the school and community that can be used for instruction) and deploying additional teachers, all to reduce congregated class size. Of course, this will also necessitate the provision of sufficient funds to school authorities to support the hiring of more teachers and other support staff and, potentially, the temporary leasing of additional facilities.

There is a strong movement within communities to mandate the wearing of masks indoors when physical distancing cannot be maintained. In most schools and classrooms, unless class sizes are reduced, physical distancing will be difficult. Though the research on the efficacy of mask wearing is still unclear, it is quickly becoming a societal norm as city transit systems and even whole cities and towns have mandated the wearing of masks in indoor spaces. Some school authorities are also requiring the use of face masks or shields by everyone in the school. For example, Massachusetts requires that students in Grade 2 and up wear masks at all times, as well as all staff and visitors. In China, masks are required at all times (Melnick and Darling-Hammond 2020). “Mask breaks” can be planned for when students can physically distance (for example, when they are outside) (Riley 2020). The use of face coverings can be taught and reinforced, and there are articulated strategies to help children become more comfortable with wearing them (for example, see https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/coronavirus-masks.html).

Face shields or masks with transparent windows are a good option for teachers so that children can still see the teacher’s face, to assist with comprehension and language learning. To reduce duplication of effort, face shields and masks should be provided by the provincial government, which can coordinate large purchases more effectively and at a lower cost than individual schools or school authorities.

To be clear, reducing class sizes to enable distancing between students, cohorting to contain the potential spread of infection and facilitate contact tracing, managing transportation to the school, and managing movement around the school to limit cross-cohort contact are measures that, in our current understanding, are most likely to reduce the risk of infection in the school context. These must be prioritized. The wearing of masks may contribute only marginally to the safety of the general school population and is contraindicated for students under age 10, but the semiotic importance of making masks mandatory in the school (including, potentially, for students in Grades 4 and up) should not be underestimated. Particularly in communities where masks are mandated in interior public spaces, requiring masks in schools communicates a seriousness of intention, a sense of shared community purpose and a policy consistency that will contribute immensely to building public confidence. Already some school boards in the province have indicated their intention to proceed with requiring masks.

Every day tens of thousands of students across the province arrive at school on buses operated by school and municipal authorities. Establishing and maintaining appropriate standards for student transportation during pandemic conditions will be complex and challenging. This is a matter of utmost importance. However, it is not a matter that the Association can provide meaningful guidance on, so we depend on the relevant provincial, school authority and transportation contractors to implement the advice of public health experts.

5. Provide funding for increased daytime caretaking staff, masks, and cleaning supplies and equipment.

School authorities should not be financially disincentivized from taking steps necessary to promote safety in school and to secure the staffing, equipment and supplies required for this purpose. As part of an infection mitigation strategy, much attention has been paid to the need for ongoing sanitation and cleaning. However, many schools have, over the years, eliminated daytime, on-site caretaking as a cost-saving measure in response to chronic underfunding. This deficiency cannot be tolerated in the current circumstances. Teachers are not caretakers, and they must focus their attention on instruction and planning. There is a difference between “tidying up,” which teachers do routinely, and the cleaning needed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 that will need to be undertaken throughout the school building over the course of the school day in an organized and systematic fashion by staff employed for this purpose.

A matter of specific concern involves supporting students’ personal hygiene practices. With a class of 30 students, assuming that it would take 60 seconds for each student, appropriately distanced, to wash for the recommended 20 seconds and then dry their hands, it would take a total of 30 minutes for the entire class to complete a single round of handwashing, and that is assuming that a sink is available for the class’s exclusive use. If all students are expected to wash their hands before lunch, for example, a teacher may have to schedule and initiate the handwashing process long beforehand so that students can access the sinks available in the school. To address this issue, additional handwashing or sanitizing stations should be purchased for schools, and consideration should be given to providing sanitizing solutions and wipes for individual use between handwashings.

In the final analysis, schools should not have to choose between supporting instruction and purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies. Cleaning schedules, routines and protocols should be set out in minimum standards specified by Alberta Education and monitored by school authorities.

6. Take steps to protect students and staff who are at higher risk.

Special consideration must be given to teachers and students with pre-existing medical conditions that may make them more susceptible to infection and to those for whom contracting COVID-19 may pose greater risk. Those with diagnosed vulnerabilities may require specialized masks (for example, properly fitted, donned and doffed N-95 standard respirators) and other combinations of PPE and proper fitting and training in the use of this PPE. In every case, masks and other necessary or mandated PPE should be made available at no cost and in sufficient quantities at every school or place of instruction. Provision should also be made to allow vulnerable students and teachers to learn and teach remotely, as informed by medical professionals.

Indeed, given that some portion of the school population will continue for some time to prefer to access some or all instruction at a distance, entitlement and access to online teaching and learning should be generally extended to all teachers and students. The creation of distance (virtual) “learning hubs” attached to individual schools is a feature of the restart plan recently announced by the Calgary Board of Education (2020) and will facilitate this preference while maintaining students’ connection to their established school community and providing opportunities for teachers who may not be able to teach in a classroom.

Sick leave policies, not only within schools but as a mandate for all Alberta employers, must be flexible so that parents, students and staff can stay home when they are sick or when they are required to self-isolate, as directed by health authorities. Additionally, there will be increased demand for the services of substitute teachers, since the established culture of “teaching while sick” can no longer be tolerated. It would be entirely acceptable for, and a reasonable expectation that, an otherwise healthy, nonsymptomatic teacher continue to teach remotely while in isolation; however, the logistical and organizational challenges of having teachers move seamlessly between these two modes of instruction may make this very difficult.

Substitute teachers will also need to have their own continuing access to sick leave and benefits to ensure their financial security while allowing them to stay well. Given the challenge that already exists in many areas to secure adequate substitute coverage and the additional difficulties that will arise should restrictions be imposed on the movement of substitute teachers within and between schools, substitute teachers should be placed on temporary contracts for the duration of the pandemic to ensure their ongoing availability.

7. Create provincial and local COVID-19 response teams and plans.

Parents, teachers and staff want to be confident that plans are in place should there be a diagnosed case of COVID-19 in a school, and being proactive is important. Alberta Education should create a provincial response team that school authorities can access should an outbreak occur. Individual school authorities should also have well-developed plans for what will take place when a case is identified in a school. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020, 3) recommends a two- to five-day building dismissal to assess the situation, to disinfect the building and to perform contact tracing if a case is identified in a school; however, the science and preferred policy with respect to such situations are evolving quickly.

Clear guidelines for isolation for those who may have been in close contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 should also be identified. It is critical that there be “detailed and rehearsed protocols” and a “designate[d] COVID-19 space in schools should students become sick during the day” (Prevent Epidemics 2020, para 22). Consideration should be given to prioritizing availability and turnaround of COVID-19 testing for teachers to minimize disruption of instruction.

Particularly in the large urban centres, the student and staff population of individual schools can approach that of a medium-sized Alberta town. Serious consideration should be given by Alberta Health Services and school authorities to positioning public health nurses in these schools to provide on-site assessment and to initiate previously established testing and isolation protocols should students or staff become symptomatic. Where schools are not sufficiently large to warrant having medically trained and equipped staff in situ, health and school authorities can set up mobile “flying squads” that can respond immediately to emergent circumstances relating to potential incidents of infection in a school.

An important aspect of the provincial plan for returning to school, and one promoted by the Chief Medical Officer of Health based on experience in health care settings, is the distribution and collection on a daily basis of (paper or online) forms attesting that a student or staff member is asymptomatic and has not had evident exposure to a person or a situation that could place them at risk of contracting COVID-19. This needs to be done before the person sets foot in the school. If this process is to be taken seriously, the distribution, collection, handling and documentation of these forms will be a major undertaking, especially in schools of any size. School districts should consider hiring staff to perform this function, as it will be time-consuming and administratively burdensome and also places those responsible in direct contact with many people. Employing teachers for this purpose would be inefficient, would detract from their ability to perform their core teaching and supervisory duties, and would be unnecessarily expensive.

Given the unreliability of fitness for school attestations, consideration should be given to temperature monitoring as a means of identifying people who arrive at school with elevated temperatures so that they can be further assessed before being permitted entry. This can be performed individually, using a noncontact infrared thermometer. Technology also exists to monitor all people moving through a hall or portal and to flag those with elevated temperatures.



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