By ATA President Jason Schilling
(August 2020) – This September, students will return to the hallways and classrooms they so abruptly and unceremoniously vacated last March under the harsh thumb of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Teachers had to turn their teaching techniques on a dime and adapt to a completely new learning model. They embraced the challenge and continued to prove why our province has one of the best public education systems in the world. But teachers were also concerned how long this style of education could continue.
Health experts and the scientific community agree with the ATA that a continued shutdown of our schools can pose a real threat to the mental health and well-being of children.
On July 21, the Alberta Government announced they would be implementing “Scenario 1” of their 3-prong school re-entry plan. This would see in-school classes resume at near normal levels with necessary health measures in place.
Prior to this announcement, the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) was asked by the government to make several formal representations concerning the conditions we feel must be in place to ensure the safety of our members, their students and our colleagues. Informal dialogues were also held with Alberta Education officials and representatives of the College of Alberta School Superintendents (CASS).
Since we have not been directly involved with the Ministry’s decision-making process on the re-entry plan, it’s unclear to what extent (if at all) our representations on behalf of teachers may have influenced the direction of this government policy.
As of the beginning of August, the ATA still held several significant concerns about the government’s re-entry plan.
Data from surveys we’ve conducted indicates while teachers’ first preference is to resume face-to-face teaching, it must be done under conditions that protect the safety of students, staff and the community.
As we approach “near normal” schooling, and with the benefit of our research done during the early months of the pandemic, it is reasonable to describe the mood of students, parents and teachers generally as one of anxiety and concern.
This is exacerbated by shifting and conflicting messages and policy responses emanating within and between various levels of government and different expert authorities municipally, provincially, nationally and even internationally.
The apparent reluctance of Alberta Education to set adequate, clear and enforceable standards with respect to school operations come September has not helped.
It has created a policy vacuum that individual school authorities are expected to fill, with resulting inconsistencies, some of which will likely become apparent even between neighbouring schools.
We do not deny that establishing such standards and a larger policy framework is immensely challenging.
These are unprecedented circumstances and there are no simple solutions that are clearly and objectively correct in any one circumstance, let alone the diversity of circumstances facing schools across the province.
Finally, the events of the last six months have made it abundantly clear that the public education system plays an essential role in facilitating economic activity; maintaining social norms and order; and protecting and supporting children and families who are facing a wide variety of pressures, threats and challenges.
The key to a successful return to school is the creation of confidence among parents, teachers, staff, students and the community in the face of continuing uncertainty. They need to know that their fears and concerns are being heard, understood and acted upon as a priority.
For more information on the ATA’s approach to COVID-19 and public education, visit teachers.ab.ca