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

Fall 2021

August 12, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented numerous challenges for students, families, communities and teachers. The Association has been monitoring the ever-evolving situation throughout the pandemic and has, on several occasions, outlined a comprehensive set of actions intended to protect students and staff and maintain the delivery of public education. In addition, the Association has advocated and made representation to government and school boards using all available channels. While many of our recommendations were initially dismissed, others were adopted, including rapid testing, regular meetings with education stakeholders and masking in schools.

Throughout the 2020/21 school year, school staff and families had to adjust, often on very short notice, to respond to the impact of the pandemic on schools. As the province anticipates the beginning of the new school year, many serious concerns remain, particularly with respect to the Government of Alberta’s recent announcement that testing centres, contact tracing and even isolation provisions for those infected with COVID-19 will cease to be in effect mid-August. The pandemic has taken a toll on teachers, students and families over the last 18 months, and a recovery phase will be necessary to address the residual mental health, educational, social and economic challenges.

Since the Association released its Teachers’ Priorities for Successful and Safe Re-Entry to Alberta School Buildings in July 2020 and its eight actions for Keeping Students, Staff and Families Safe and Schools Open During the Coronavirus Pandemic in November 2020, the pandemic and the response of Alberta’s public education system have continued to adapt to changing realities and new situations.

Certainly, the rapid development and mass deployment of effective vaccines have fundamentally changed management of the pandemic. However, until vaccinations are approved for and administered to students under 12 years of age, as well as unvaccinated and/or vulnerable staff and community members, vigilance and support will continue to be needed in schools as students return in the fall of 2021. There is still much uncertainty about and considerable regional variation in the percentage of adults and older children who are now fully vaccinated at a time when COVID-19 variants of concern are spreading in Alberta, and there are well-justified concerns about the potential for other variants to emerge.

In light of these realities, the Association is once more called upon by its members, parents and the public to provide advice to Alberta Education and school authorities on measures that will help to facilitate a safe return to school in the fall of 2021.

Alberta Education has released its 2021-2022 School Year Plan. Since the Association was not consulted on this plan, it is important for the profession to outline the key items that need attention as students once again return to school with COVID-19 remaining active in the province.

The teachers of Alberta call upon the Government of Alberta to implement the following measures:

1. Re-establish regular stakeholder group meetings with an additional focus on learning and wellness

Alberta Education held meetings with education stakeholders during the 2020/21 school year, and these will continue to be a necessity. It is critical for the Ministry to be aware of the evolving context in schools across the province and to facilitate the sharing of information and various practices as the recovery phase continues. We also encourage the Ministry to engage in more direct and formative discussions with the Association to better understand the perspectives of the teaching profession. The Government of Alberta should also monitor closely the management of schooling and other pandemic-related responses in other jurisdictions that may be further down the path of recovery and share findings with education stakeholder groups.

2. Provide clear and transparent information concerning the status of the pandemic in local communities and the province

Anxiety and misinformation thrive in conditions of uncertainty, and therefore it is critical that Alberta Education provides clear direction to schools guiding their response to the pandemic. For example, in Alberta Education’s 2021-2022 School Year Plan, there is an emphasis on school authorities being responsible for deploying resources and responding to local circumstances; however, a school authority that determines that it must initiate online learning in response to outbreaks must submit that decision for approval to Alberta Education. If the department is delegating decision making to school authorities, then it must respect the decisions they make.

Furthermore, decisions must be evidence based, defensible and transparent. The development, communication and application of clear criteria or guidelines would enhance public confidence and reduce the perception that decisions are being made in an arbitrary, inconsistent and ad hoc fashion.

Accurate information concerning infection rates will inform school authority decisions concerning the operation of schools and the measures necessary to preserve the safety of members of the larger school community. The Government of Alberta should immediately reconsider its timelines for discontinuing centralized testing (including surveillance testing) and contact tracing in order to ensure that appropriate and timely information is available to inform decision makers.

Should contact tracing be resumed, it should be clearly within the purview and responsibility of Alberta Health Services and not school administrators. The demands previously imposed on school and school authority staff to perform this function were a significant drain on energy and resources during the first three waves of the pandemic.

3. Provide provincewide vaccinations, boosters and rapid testing in schools

As with other mass vaccination programs, COVID-19 vaccines and any future boosters required should be provided in schools to students whose parents provide consent. In particular, efforts should be made immediately to ensure that students older than 12 years of age, along with staff, are caught up so that they are fully vaccinated at the earliest possible opportunity. When vaccines are eventually approved for younger children, these, along with any boosters that might be required, should be made available at the school. Having such access at the school will remove barriers for families in accessing this service. An ongoing analysis of the potential impact of variants of concern is critically important, and if contact tracing will not take place, then ongoing testing in schools will become a necessary strategy to keep students, staff and communities safe by identifying localized outbreaks and identifying where and when additional measures may be necessary to reduce further contagion.

4. Protect students and staff who are at higher risk and/or cannot be vaccinated

Under the current guidelines, teachers and principals will not be able to inquire about or be informed of the vaccination status of those in the school building, and so there will continue to be a need for protective measures such as masking and distancing. Such measures are particularly important because not all students will have been fully vaccinated and because classes will too often continue to be crowded. A dramatic increase in the number of children and youth becoming infected and developing longer-term symptoms and/or requiring hospitalization has already been noted in other jurisdictions, and Alberta should plan for this contingency.

It is also essential to ensure the reduction of viral spread by increasing outdoor air exchange and improving air flow and filtering. HVAC standards developed pre-COVID-19 are not intended to mitigate contagion in crowded spaces such as classrooms. On a practical note, the Centers for Disease Control in the United States and other health authorities have recognized the value of portable, high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) fan filtration in cleaning air to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in confined spaces. The Government of Alberta should provide funding to school authorities to enable the placement of this readily available equipment into classrooms. In addition, increased funding for ongoing and sufficient caretaking staff, cleaning supplies and equipment will continue to be needed by school authorities. Some of the health protocols introduced in response to the pandemic have also been successful in reducing the prevalence of colds, influenza and other illnesses; these increased health and safety measures should continue in schools beyond the pandemic.

5. Provide supports to substitute teachers

It is important for the Government of Alberta and school authorities to address the employment gap in relation to substitute teachers so that their pay and benefits are equivalent to those of other teachers and they enjoy greater job security and employment certainty. The pandemic has highlighted longstanding concerns concerning substitute teachers. For example, providing them with full access to sick leave and benefits allows substitute teachers to stay well and be available when needed. School authorities should be encouraged and financially supported to employ a core cohort of substitute teachers on contract to minimize travelling between schools. On a related matter, the provincial government and school authorities should mandate that staff who contract COVID-19 remain isolated for the medically recommended period and, more generally, that policies, practices and culture that penalize staff (including substitute teachers) for or discourage them from absenting themselves from work while they are sick or infectious are scrutinized and corrected.

6. Carefully return to more routine school activities

The last 18 months of schooling has been tumultuous for many teachers, students and families and included interruptions in learning due to school closures and COVID-19 exposures. Routine school activities such as academic, athletic, creative and social pursuits will be important over the next school year, but care will need to be taken to ensure that these activities are done safely, especially those involving the unvaccinated. Specific guidelines relating to these activities should be developed.

The 2021/22 school year should also be fully focused on addressing unmet student needs with respect to both wellness and learning. The return to all standardized testing, including diploma exams and provincial achievement tests, is specified in Alberta Education’s 2021-2022 School Year Plan. With the learning interruptions that have occurred and the level of stress for students, families and teachers in the system, the Association believes that the time and resources that are spent on standardized testing are better spent in supporting mental health and well-being, and that if Alberta Education is set on standardized tests continuing, they should be suspended for at least the 2021/22 school year. After the interruptions to schooling, students’ opportunity to access postsecondary education programs could be negatively impacted by standardized tests through no fault of their own.

Field testing of new curriculum is ill advised for similar reasons. It is critical to use the learnings of the pandemic to re-evaluate both standardized testing and the ill-considered curriculum.

7. Provide funding for necessary supports

Not only are smaller class sizes important for reducing the spread of COVID-19, but they are also important to provide the extra help students will need to mitigate the impacts on student learning and mental health issues brought on by the pandemic. Smaller class sizes mean that more individual support can be provided. The funding that will be available through Alberta Education in the early years is a start; however, supports are critically important not only in the early years but also throughout the K-12 system, particularly if federal COVID funding does not continue to be available to schools. Additionally, support for those with exceptional needs will need to be increased, as some of these vulnerable students will have had major impacts on their learning because of the COVID-19 outbreaks.

Deficiencies in the system were brought to light during the COVID-19 pandemic that will need to be addressed, such as the digital divide between families with and without means to have high-speed Internet connectivity.

8. Provide funding and a focus on increased support for mental health and well-being 

 In the midst of a crisis, attending to everyday demands takes precedence, and often it is not until afterwards that consequences of crisis-related stress upon mental health become apparent. Time and resources to support professional development focusing on student and staff wellness, including trauma-informed practice, are required.

In particular, special attention must be paid to the broader impact of poverty and precarious family situations on students, some of whose most basic needs are not being adequately or consistently met. Comprehensive school health programs should be funded and supported to support families in managing employment, shelter and food uncertainty as well as other health issues. While schools provide a convenient community nexus for the provision of various social support services, this is not the job of teachers. Instead, specialized professionals with access to relevant information, external contacts and resources are required in schools to establish and maintain systems of support for students and their families.

9. Maintain capacity to support remote learning

While Albertans share a common desire to see the end of the pandemic and the lifting of related restrictions, the recent decision of government to do so in mid-August and to discontinue or substantially reduce testing and contact tracing does not reflect a broad consensus of opinion among medical practitioners or large segments of the public. Even if Alberta avoids experiencing a “fourth wave” of the pandemic and is unaffected by the emergence and spread of new variants of concern, many parents will be reluctant to have their children return to congregated learning in conventional school settings. Some will delay making a decision until the situation becomes more settled or may reassess their decision as circumstances change. Regardless, this means that there will continue to be substantial demand for remote learning delivered online by teachers. School authorities must plan to be flexible in their response to changing parental expectations and to support students wherever they might be learning. The Ministry of Education must assist by ensuring that school authorities have sufficient resources to maintain two-track learning into the indefinite future and avoid policy decisions, some described above, that would disadvantage students who are learning remotely or who switch between learning modalities.

Conclusion

The actions outlined above will assist in ensuring that Alberta’s students continue to receive a world-class education. The pandemic has impacted the education system profoundly, and further supports are required as the province gradually reduces the public health measures made necessary by COVID-19. Rather than a “return to normal,” we advocate for reimagining a better future for the students of Alberta.