The Alberta government is targeting a return to "near-normal" conditions with students returning to classrooms across the province for the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange says.
"Our goal is to get us back to normal learning as soon as possible," LaGrange said Wednesday at news conference. "We are targeting a return to new-normal operations with some health measures in place."
LaGrange laid out three scenarios that have been part of the planning for weeks now.
The first scenario would see near-normal operations resume with students returning to daily in-school classes with some health measures. Under the second scenario, in-school classes would only resume partially with additional health requirements. The third scenario would see at-home learning continue.
A final decision on school openings will be made Aug. 1, she said.
"Based on the information we have at hand right now, we expect that students will be at school in September," LaGrange said.
Plan must be 'flexible and nimble'
All school boards will have to be ready to transition from one scenario to another on short notice to adapt to any changes in the COVID-19 situation, she said.
"How we return to in-class learning may vary regionally and will depend on the number of COVID 19 cases in total in that area," LaGrange said. "The reality is that the COVID-19 environment requires all of us to be flexible and nimble, flexible throughout the next school year."
The decision about which scenarios to follow will be made by the government based on public-health guidance, the minister said, not by local school boards.
That will help the province ensure that all schools adhere to the appropriate health measures for their region.
"While things will not be exactly as they were before the pandemic, students will be back learning in an environment they know," she said.
Since schools closed down in March, LaGrange said, teachers, school board and parents have done their best to adapt to different ways to help students learn at home, LaGrange said.
"We all know, though, that students learn best in the classroom with their teachers and their peers, provided that it's safe to do so."
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said the government's re-entry plan schools tried to find a balance, given that there are consequences to having children learn at home rather than in schools.
"We know that there are risks to those children; we know that there are consequences to broader society to having a universal distance-delivered education model," she said. "So we need to balance the risks of continuing that distance model or the risks of bringing students back to school, because there is no one risk-free option that we have at our disposal, unfortunately."
Physical distancing may be more challenging for younger children, she said. Health officials have made recommendations to limit transmission, including re-arranging desks, restructuring activities, keeping children in cohorts and relying on health screenings, Hinshaw said.
The government's guide for school re-entry under scenario one includes several specific recommendations, including:
- Cohorting — Where possible, students should be cohorted by class, with the size of the cohort dependent on the physical space of the classroom.
- Physical distancing — Where two metres is not possible between desks, students should be arranged so they do not face each other, for example, seated in rows rather than in small groups or semi-circles. When two metres is not possible, especially if circumstances require close contact for longer that 15 minutes, teachers, staff and students may choose to wear a non-medical face masks.
- Pick up/drop off — The guide recommends staggering drop-off and pick-up times and locations or using other ways to limit contact between staff, parents and students as much as possible.
- Transportation — Students should be assigned seats and a record of the seating plan should be kept to assist with contact tracing if a student contracts COVID-19. Students who live in the same household should be seated together. Field trips and activities requiring group transportation should be postponed.
- Food and dining — Stagger lunch and snack breaks to maintain physical distancing. No activities that involve the sharing of food should occur. For classroom meals or snacks, no self-serve or family-style meals. Schools should switch to pre-packaged meals or meals served by designated staff. Food provided by the family should be stored with the student's belongings.
The province conducted 6,582 tests for COVID-19 over the past 24 hours and identified 47 new cases, for a total of 371 active cases across the province, Hinshaw said.
Of the 47 new cases, 22 are in the Edmonton zone. Since June 1, Edmonton zone has gone from 44 active cases to 134 as of Wednesday's update. Calgary zone still has the most active cases in province with 203.
As of Wednesday, 42 people were in hospital being treated for the illness, six of them in ICU beds.
No more deaths were reported, leaving the total at 151.
Hinshaw reported a small outbreak at Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, where four staff members have tested positive. No patients have tested positive, she said.
Premier Jason Kenney announced on Tuesday that Stage 2 of the province's relaunch plan will begin Friday, allowing more businesses and services to reopen with two-metre physical distancing requirements and other public health measures in place.
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