COVID-19: Some Alberta classes move online as teaching positions go unfilled

WATCH: It’s been one week since Calgary students and staff have been back in class and both the Calgary public and private school divisions are reporting a growing number of school absences. As Lauren Pullen reports, it’s prompting big questions about sustainability.

As cases of COVID-19 continue to mount in Alberta, schools are dealing with climbing student and teacher absences.

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On Monday, Edmonton Public Schools confirmed four classes transitioned to online learning.

Families from one class at Soraya Hafez School, one class at Mill Creek School and two classes at Scott Robertson School were notified over the weekend that they were moving online.

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As of Monday morning, 581 teachers were absent from Edmonton Public Schools and 112 posts were unfilled. As for educational assistants, 319 were absent on Monday and 185 posts were unfilled.

“It is important to note these numbers fluctuate throughout the day; absences unfilled this morning may have been filled for the afternoon,” EPSB spokesperson Megan Normandeau said in an email to Global News.

“Our division is evaluating these circumstances on a case-by-case basis, taking staff absences, student absences and operational needs into consideration.”

In January, the school division hired 29 temporary contract teachers to help fill the unfilled jobs and all of those teachers were deployed Monday, Normandeau said.

As for students, the percentage of absences due to COVID-19 has risen every day since school resumed after the holiday break.

On Friday, 3.77 per cent of students enrolled with Edmonton Public Schools were absent due to COVID-19. On Thursday, it was 3.16 per cent, on Wednesday it was 2.29 per cent, on Tuesday it was 1.78 per cent and on Monday it was 1.44 per cent.

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As of Jan. 17, Edmonton Catholic Schools had 633 staff absent, 343 of whom are teachers. Of those teaching positions, 82 were unfilled. The numbers reflect all staff absences, not just those related to COVID-19. COVID-19 cases are self-reported by students and staff and do not include the various other reasons a student may be absent from school.

As of the morning of Jan. 17, Edmonton Catholic has shifted two classes to online learning.

Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers Association, said the first week back in class was challenging and difficult.

“I know that teachers were glad to see their students and their students were glad to be at school but more support is needed to help our school system because I worry about the sustainability of this over the next couple of weeks.”

Schilling said teachers would like better PPE like KN95 masks, substitute teachers on contract, smaller class sizes to facilitate distancing, contact tracing and removing standardized testing for the rest of the year.

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“Last year we had testing, we had isolation requirements and we had reporting to schools so schools knew what they were dealing with in terms of COVID numbers in their buildings. We don’t have that right now. There’s no mechanisms set up, there’s no metrics, there’s no parameters for a class to go online or a school to go online. We’re still waiting for direction from government on that.

“Essentially what we’re seeing right now is government abdicating any responsibly and saying: ‘School boards, you handle this now. We gave you some masks and some rapid tests. Yeah, they’re not there yet, but that’s okay, you guys can figure it out.’ And that’s an unfair position to put schools and students and parents in.”

What do teaching staff need most at this time?

“I actually talked to some trustees… I can boil it down to one word: support. Our schools, our teachers, our administrators, our students need support to get through the next couple of weeks — through this fifth wave.

“And then we need to actually see government start taking some serious steps to rectify some of the things the people who are working in our buildings say need to be addressed to keep this school year sustainable.”

The ATA is also concerned about a circuit breaker being required like it was last May.

“I’m worried that we’re going to get into that position again and get stuck in this cycle or this rollercoaster we saw last year of being in-person, going online, being in-person, going online and we don’t want to see that happen because it’s not good for the continuity of education for students and we want to make sure we’re keeping it as stable as possible.”

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The Calgary Board of Education explained its decisions on transitioning to online learning are made on a case-by-case basis.

“In making decisions, it is important that we consider the system-wide context, as well as the circumstances of individual schools and grade configurations.

“Transitions to online learning are based on operational capacity pressures due to staff absences and our ability to provide consistent coverage. Additionally, we monitor student absences due to illness that may impact a specific class, grade or school.

“Our top priority is to provide consistency to in-person learning to the greatest extent possible and ensure that we are able to effectively support transitions when required.”

On. Jan. 17, CBE identified 1,128 jobs that required substitute teachers or casual employees.
– 494 of 779 teaching jobs were filled;
– 287 of 349 support staff jobs were filled.
Substitute teachers and casual employees are requested for a variety of reasons, including absences due to illness or otherwise, vacancies and extra help.

On Friday, Jan. 14, 24 per cent of K-12 students were absent, 7.4 per cent of whom were absent due to illness.

Since the return from winter break on Jan. 10, 15 schools have seen one or more classes engage in short term transitions to online learning.
As of Jan. 17, only one CBE school has transitioned all students to online learning, Dr. Gordon Townsend School, the specialized setting school at the Alberta Children’s Hospital.

Nine CBE schools currently have one or more classes learning online.

Calgary Catholic School District created its own COVID-19 online threshold.

“CCSD will be using a 25 per cent classroom absenteeism rate to initiate a transition to emergency learning at home for 10 calendar days.

“Students can be absent from school for the following reasons: decision by parent, illness, medical appointment, public health leave, unknown or other.

“As of Jan. 14, we have 106 schools out of 117 reporting a 10 per cent or greater student absentee threshold.”

As of Jan. 17, CCSD had 15 classes that transitioned to online learning due to a 25 per cent absentee rate.

As of Monday, there were currently 107 CCSD employees on public health leave. The district was able to fill 78.7 per cent of teacher absences with external guest staff, while the remaining positions were covered internally.

A spokesperson for the ministry of education said: “Given the dramatic rise in COVID cases, Alberta is focusing resources on identifying and investigating cases in high-priority settings such as continuing care and health care and those with medical risk factors where a COVID diagnosis will impact their treatment options.”

Given the changes in testing and contact tracing, it will no longer be able to update the school outbreaks page.

“Parents can be confident that significant public health measures will remain in place to protect students including masking, physical distancing, cohorting, enhanced sanitization and hygiene practices, the availability of vaccinations for everyone five years of age and older, and encouraging school authorities to have proof of vaccination policies for adults.”

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“The government will continue to work with school authorities on shifts to at-home learning, if needed. School authorities will continue to have the flexibility to shift a class or an individual grade to short-term at-home learning if needed to address operational challenges at a school.

“Decisions on shifting entire schools or school authorities to at-home learning will continue to be made by the Alberta government, with input from school authorities. For both situations, consideration will be given to student absentee rates, the ability of a school or school authority to have staff available to operate in-school classes and other relevant information, including local health data, if available.”

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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