“We’re on the cusp of a generational catastrophe. We need to prioritise children. And yet, for some reason, children are never prioritised. They’re the afterthought of a pandemic.” – Dr Tracey Vaillancourt, Chair, COVID-19 Task Force, Royal Society of Canada
On Jan 5, 2022, after a one-week delay, Education Minister, Adrianna LaGrange announced kids would be returning to in-class instruction because “experts agree and continue to stress the important of in-person learning to the overall health of children and youth.”
This is true, experts do agree that in-person learning offers academic, emotional, social, and societal benefits in addition to academic ones. School is more than reading, writing and arithmetic.
LaGrange also said the government has placed “a high priority on safe in-class instruction and making sure schools have the tools they need to continue providing a world-class education” to students.
There is very little evidence to support this.
What did we get?
Over the last two years the government implemented the following tools/protocols for safe instruction: masking for grades 4 and up, physical distancing, cohorting, enhanced sanitization and hygiene practices, public reporting, contact notification and outbreak definition/alerts, and encouraged school authorities to have proof of vaccination policies for adults. We’ve had outbreak after outbreak, shut down after shut down, so to say these tools/protocols have been less than effective would be an understatement.
On Jan 5, 2022, LaGrange announced two additional tools to ensure a safe return and quality instruction.
The first was a shipment of rapid test kits and medical-grade masks. Unfortunately some schools won’t get their shipments until Jan 14, four days after the kids return to school, and the number of tests each school receives will only last two and a half weeks.
The second was a free online tutoring resource for kids in grades 4 and up. This tops up the $45 million earmarked to address learning disruptions for kids in grades 1 to 3.
LaGrange did not mention that the rapid rise in cases resulted in the government eliminating public reporting, contact notification or outbreak definition/alerts for schools.
Nor did she mention that many of the resources provided by the government to teachers and parents, including the 2021-22 School Year Plan and the Parent Guide and the translated versions of the Alberta Health Daily Checklist are out of date, or that the list of mental health resources, a hodgepodge of federal, provincial, and local resources, isn’t necessarily covid specific.
LaGrange isn’t alone in touting the Kenney government’s “balanced approach”.
In Aug 2021 the CMOH, Dr Hinshaw, referred to the government’s “balanced approach” to the risks children face, noting we’d have to learn to live with covid in our schools.
She committed to closely monitor what happened after the fall term began and assured us she wouldn’t hesitate to consider additional measures and work with schools and local health officials in the event of an outbreak.
Six months later the CMOH is silent while the government removes existing measures like public reporting, contract notification and the protocol for defining outbreaks, leaving parents, teachers and students in the dark.
What do we need?
Alberta is a rich province in a privileged G7 country. If the Kenney government truly prioritizes safe in-class learning it would, as Sarah Hoffman (NDP education critic) said provide HEPA filters, N95 masks, carbon dioxide monitors, contact tracing, contact reports to parents, and funding for additional staff. Instead it’s eliminating some of our existing tools.
Furthermore if it wants children to grow up to lead productive, healthy, meaningful lives it would take a sincere, nonpartisan look at the curriculum because every grade is connected to the others and some parts of the curriculum may need to be lengthened or pushed into the next year to address the disruptions created by almost three years of start/stop, in-class/online education.* An online tutoring program simply won’t cut it.
Lastly, if the Kenney government won’t do it for the kids, it should do it for the economy. Education economists predict school closures of 14 to 16 weeks in a country like Canada can result in a six percent drop in GDP.*
The Kenney government should pull out all the stops to protect in-class learning, instead it’s exposing students and staff to the highly infectious Omicron virus and risking another shut down.
Alberta is the richest province in Canada, and yet it won’t take care of its children.
But you know Jason Kenney. It’s all about balance.
*Prof Prachi Shrivastava, associate professor of education and global development, Western University on CBC The Current Jan 5, 2022