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Alberta school districts not allowed to shut down in-school learning despite high absenteeism

Click to play video: 'Alberta bans school mask mandates, online learning'
Alberta bans school mask mandates, online learning
WATCH: Alberta's provincial government introduced regulations prohibiting its schools from enforcing mask mandates. Heather Yourex-West explains – Nov 25, 2022

New regulations mean Alberta’s school divisions will not be allowed to shut down in-school learning despite high absenteeism from respiratory illness outbreaks.

The province said students and parents are “guaranteed” access to in-person learning starting Thursday, and students cannot be denied in-person learning by their school authorities because of their decision to wear a mask or not.

School districts must also continue to offer courses and “preserve the integrity of educational programming,” whether in person or at home.

Read more: Alberta’s top doctor warns parents about concerning, ‘severe’ flu season

These changes will apply to grades 1-12 in all school settings, including public and independent schools. In a news release on Thursday afternoon, the UCP government said the change will create an inclusive environment and will respect personal and family choices.

This comes after Alberta’s new chief medical officer of health Dr. Mark Joffe warned parents about a flu season that could be “more severe than we have seen in years.”

Alberta Health reported 3,648 lab-confirmed cases of influenza and 550 hospitalizations on Thursday, including the second pediatric influenza death this season.

Click to play video: 'Flu cases on the rise in Alberta'
Flu cases on the rise in Alberta

“We took extreme and draconian measures when we had a novel virus when we didn’t know how it was going to impact people… We made the decision in June to move into an endemic phase in the treatment of (COVID-19),” Smith told reporters on Friday.

“We’re not just going to normalize these extreme measures every respiratory illness season. We need a normal school environment for our children and we need to make sure classrooms stay open for our parents.”

The government also said the new regulations will minimize potential learning loss. According to Thursday’s news release, literacy assessments showed around 70,000 at-risk students in grades 1-3 were 11 months behind grade level at the start of the 2021-2022 school year after 17 months of at-home learning.

Read more: Young child among 6 Albertans who have died of influenza this season

The government also said the average learning loss dropped to 3.7 months after assessment results from May to June 2022, when students returned to in-person learning.

“I have heard from parents and students that they would like stability, and from school boards that they would like clarity,” Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said in a statement.

“Securing a face-to-face classroom environment means students can continue to learn successfully while allowing their parents to go to work. It will also help to maintain and improve student mental health while minimizing student learning loss.”

Edmonton Public School Board chair Trisha Estabrooks said the division was given a heads-up prior to the province’s news release, but she wanted greater transparency from Joffe and Alberta Health.

While she agrees that parents want students to access in-person learning, the high absenteeism from respiratory illness outbreaks is worrying.

“Health decisions need to be made by health officials… We’ve asked for clarity from the chief medical officer of health around how our health officials in our province are monitoring rates of illness in our schools,” Estabrooks told reporters on Friday.

“There’s no transparency in terms of the number of outbreaks that has been declared in schools across the province. We’re still in a pandemic and we’re still looking for some answers.”

Click to play video: 'RSV, other respiratory illnesses pressuring Alberta Children’s Hospital staff and wait times'
RSV, other respiratory illnesses pressuring Alberta Children’s Hospital staff and wait times

Wing Li, communications director for Support Our Students Alberta, said she was shocked when she learned school divisions will not be allowed to shut down in-school learning.

The new regulations will remove important tools schools need to navigate a health crisis because of a lack of staffing and resources due to the respiratory illness outbreak, she said.

“It’s not tenable… Ultimately this means students will suffer because of the (drop in the) quality of education that they’re receiving,” Li told Global News on Friday.

“It’s chaos right now. It’s very challenging to keep every kid caught up but there’s no pandemic infrastructure for online learning or seamless hybrid learning.”

Li also said the government is hugely disconnected from reality.

“They’ve caused this and contributed in large part by not managing the pandemic properly. We have other illnesses and now they’re not managing them or providing guidance,” Li said.

“It’s frustrating knowing that this (regulation) isn’t really about students. They’ve never really shown and actually care about students. This is really about campaigning and staking a claim in anti-evidence.”

Education critic Sarah Hoffman criticized the government’s move, saying LaGrange and Smith have “no clue” about what’s happening in Alberta schools.

“We know that respiratory illness outbreaks have been widespread this fall, causing intense stress and increased challenges for students, staff, and families. School districts are struggling to staff classrooms as illness moves through students and employees,” Hoffman said in an emailed statement.

“It is totally unrealistic to expect that school districts can staff in-person and online classes simultaneously with no additional resources. They are struggling to staff schools already given UCP cuts in the last budget.”

Dr. Tehseen Ladha, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Alberta, said the timing of the announcement is terrible given the strain the health-care system is under.

“Not using the protective measures we have learned can be helpful will actually result in more children getting sick, more children suffering, longer wait times in the emergency room and more hospitalization amongst children,” Ladha said. “It’s disappointing and frustrating that the decisions about health and wellness of our children have been taken away from educators.

“School boards should have the freedom to choose what they think is best for the health of their teachers and for their students.”

Some health law experts worry that taking the authority away from schools makes them less able to respond to issues specific to their community.

“You have the government bringing in policy which seems to be largely political, and that isn’t what we want,” said Lorian Hardcastle, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary who specializes in health law and policy.

“When we have a public health issue, we want the science to prevail over the politics.”

“There is very little evidence that supports this idea that masks are harmful for kids,” said Timothy Caulfield, a law professor at the University of Calgary and Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy. “That’s just not the case.

“Kids are really resilient and I think they stepped up during the pandemic.”

He said the decision is not built on science.

“I think it’s clearly a little bit of political posturing,” Caulfield said.

“These kinds of policies that we saw implemented this week can and will do real harm.”

The Alberta Teachers’ Association said the direction that in-person learning must be available at all times is unrealistic.

“While the regulation purporting to ‘ensure access to education for all students’ announced by the minister of education provides some clarity in response to a recent court case, the solutions it imposes are unworkable,” ATA president Jason Schilling said in a statement.

“Many schools across the province are struggling in the face of widespread outbreaks of COVID-19, influenza and RSV to maintain in-person teaching because of widespread teacher and student illness.

“If schools have no choice but to implement online learning in response to severe staff shortages and limited availability of substitute teachers, they simply will not have sufficient capacity to offer in-person instruction at the same time, as is required by the regulation.

“The assurance the chief medical officer of health can impose orders that supersede the limitations imposed by the regulation is welcome, but will only have force and effect if the CMOH can act truly independently and in accordance with the best medical information available.”

In a statement released on Friday, the Calgary Board of Education said in-person learning has and continues to be the CBE’s priority.

“Our school communities are able to provide this stability to families because of the extraordinary efforts of our teachers, principals and support staff,” said Christopher Usih, chief superintendent of schools at the CBE. “At times, throughout the system, teachers are teaching more than one class at a time.

“Principals, assistant principals and central staff are moving into classrooms when required, while balancing their existing workloads. And we are hiring additional substitute teachers to cover staff absences.”

–With files from Dean Bennett and Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press

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