This week has been a hectic one as teachers arrive back at school, preparing classrooms and protocols for what is sure to be a unique year as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Alberta’s official Opposition has repeated its suggestion that school districts should consider using additional spaces such as churches and community halls to reduce class sizes to 15 students.
The NDP plan also includes adding additional staff to help manage the smaller class sizes.
“Every day, I’m hearing from parents and teachers who are worried about sending kids back into crowded classrooms of 30 or more students,” said NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman.
“You can’t properly distance in a classroom like that. It isn’t safe.”
Bruce Buruma, community relations director for Red Deer Public Schools, said without additional funds from the government, there was no consideration of using alternate classroom sites in Red Deer.
“If we were going to reduce class sizes, that would require more teachers. I understand where the NDP is coming from, as a way of employing more teachers, and it would be wonderful to do that,” he said.
“But we have not been provided any additional resources to cover that. It’s not only a matter of facilities, it’s a matter of staffing costs and we have a huge, unpredictable budget right now, relative to some of those particular pieces.”
He also pointed to the social benefits of children returning to school, emphasizing that students who missed out on school this spring are eager to be back in class to see their friends. That, he said, will play a big role in children’s long-term development.
“If you have a Grade 3 class that’s (learning) in the basement of a church or community hall, they’re separated from the rest of the school community,” he said.
“While that minimizes the distancing issues and challenges that go with it, at the same time, near-normal and for the social and emotional well-being of students – that’s been a big piece as well. Part of that is being back with the school community.
“When you talk to students who were not in school from March to June, the biggest thing is, ‘I want to be with my friends; I want to be connected.’
“Those friendships extend beyond the classroom that they’re in.”
Even as the federal government announced $2 billion for school re-entry, $262 million of which will come to Alberta, it’s not clear how the money will be spent, with the school year set to begin in a matter of days.
Buruma said in part, he hopes the money goes to more COVID-19 related expenses. He also recognized that any sort of funding passed down the line to the school level is a good thing.
“As we look at the year ahead, we have predictable budgets, but there’s a lot of unknowns,” he said.
“We’re hiring additional teachers to support at-home learning. So at this point, we’re waiting for details and we’ve already started to look at where those needs are.
“And those needs, in our eyes, are going to be significant. It’s going to be welcome dollars.”