As students across Alberta contend with the risks of returning to the classroom during a pandemic, the province is expected to announce how $260 million in federal money for schools will be spent.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw are scheduled to hold a joint news conference at 11 a.m. Wednesday.
The announcement is expected to detail how Alberta plans to spend its share of $2 billion in federal funding for local classrooms.
The funding, announced last week, is meant to allow provinces and territories to work with local school boards to implement measures to protect students and staff from COVID-19.
The money can be used to help adapt learning spaces, improve air ventilation, increase hand sanitation and hygiene and buy extra personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies.
A return to the classroom, as Alberta’s infection rates continue to climb, has been contentious.
The Alberta Teachers’ Association has criticized the province for overcrowded classrooms, an exemption to some masking orders, and a lack of funding for sanitation supplies and protective equipment.
Even as thousands of students return, the novel coronavirus has already kept some schools unexpectedly shuttered.
Meadows Ridge School in Okotoks, south of Calgary, did not open as planned Tuesday after a staff member was diagnosed with COVID-19.
Canyon Meadows School in Calgary was to open as planned Tuesday, but the principal, assistant principal and administrative secretary were forced into a 14-day quarantine after someone at the school tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Meanwhile, the Peace River School Division, northwest of Edmonton, is delaying the start of its school year until after Labour Day. A notice on the division website said the delay will give teachers more time to get used to safety protocols and plan for at-home learning.
The school division also said it’s still waiting for the delivery of hand sanitizer, masks, face shields and thermometers from the Alberta government.
On Tuesday, Premier Jason Kenney said COVID-19 infections in schools are inevitable and that’s no reason to keep classrooms shuttered.
Kenney said Hinshaw drafted school safety guidelines based on the most up-to-date research — and the risk of spread in schools has to be balanced against the significant harms of keeping kids home indefinitely.
He said suggestions that the federal funding should go toward cutting class sizes to allow for more physical distancing are unrealistic.
He estimates it would cost $4 billion to cut class sizes in half, so calls to do so are actually proposals to keep schools shut.
“We appreciate the additional federal funding, but there is no world in which you could reduce class sizes in half and reopen the schools for the current school year,” Kenney said.
“It’s simply fictitious. It has nothing to do with reality.”
Under Alberta’s school reopening plan, students in grades 4 to 12 must cover their faces when they’re in common and shared indoor areas where physical distancing cannot be maintained, like hallways and buses.
The rules are eased for classrooms so that masks don’t get in the way of learning and communication.