Extending the Christmas break for students is an idea being tossed around in British Columbia and Ontario, and it may be time for a discussion here, says the Alberta Teachers’ Association president.
“It would be interesting to have that conversation to see how that would look, and how we would incorporate extra time,” said Jason Schilling, who has been speaking with the presidents of teachers’ organizations across Canada this week.
“It’s not really something that’s caught a lot of attention right now, but I think it’s something worthwhile looking at if we want to bring the cases of COVID down in Alberta.”
But he said closing schools, without shutting down anything else in the community, would not be effective in stopping the spread.
A stricter shutdown would be needed, which is what some people are already calling for.
“(Extending the Christmas break) would have to be up to the government.”
On Tuesday, about 64 schools across Alberta were under the province’s watch status, and another 106 had an outbreak status, which is two to four cases.
This week in Red Deer, an outbreak at Holy Family School was confirmed. Prior to this outbreak, Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools had only had five cases at its 20 schools.
Last week, a letter from Catholic superintendent Kathleen Finnigan to parents said transmission rates were currently under control, but with the rise in cases, students and families were encouraged to remain vigilant and ensure they were following public health guidance, both at school and elsewhere.
“While there was early success in flattening the curve in our province, recent outbreaks are occurring at a concerning rate,” Finnigan said.
“We understand that people are growing weary of following COVID-19 protocols, as they can be taxing both physically and mentally. However, further restrictions will be more disruptive.
“That is why we are strongly urging students, parents and staff to continue practising safe COVID-19 protocols outside of school time to further reduce opportunities of bringing the virus into a school environment.”
As of Nov. 13, Red Deer Public Schools has had 27 cases reported in 10 schools.
“The impact of that has been significant, with almost a thousand students and staff needing to self isolate and stay at home as a precaution. We are not aware of any in-school transmission,” said superintendent Chad Erikson and board chair Nicole Buchanan in a letter to parents.
“By being diligent and following self-isolation rules, we have reduced the number of students who have had to self isolate. We must remain vigilant.”
Schilling said the ATA just released eight immediate actions for the province to fund and school boards to implement that would help keep schools open, based on what teachers are experiencing on the job.
Recommendations include reducing class sizes to allow for physical distancing; helping staff and students manage fatigue and anxiety, for example with wellness days some jurisdictions had in conjunction with Remembrance Day; and an increase in funding to support school administration involved in COVID contact tracing.
“It’s a huge task for principals right now. They need help with that. They’re working 16, 17-hour days right now trying to keep on top of everything.”
Other actions include supports to address the critical substitute teacher shortage; more funding to hire additional educational assistants; increasing caretaking staff; consistent, reliable and timely COVID information from government, including activating the national tracing app; and postponing high-stakes testing, like making January diploma exams optional.
“We want schools to stay open, but we need to address concerns. These are the areas that we can take immediate action on, that is reasonable and attainable,” Schilling said.