Education professors call for more robust school re-entry plan

Two Educational Policy Studies professors, who are also parents, have added their voices to the chorus of concerns about the Alberta government’s fall school re-entry plans during a surge in the coronavirus pandemic. Dia and Alex Da Costa have been promoting an open letter co-authored by academics and other community members to the government asking for stronger public health measures and more funding before children return to Alberta’s public schools. The letter has garnered more than 8,300 additional signatures in less than a week.

Alex Da Costa says that most parents do want schools reopen in September, but they want them to be able to do so safely for students, teachers and school staff, and the wider community.

“We know this is not a partisan issue, it’s not about advocating for a political party,” he said. “We have friends in our circle who have different opinions about the governing parties and even what public education is and should look like, but everyone is concerned about how to have safe schools in the fall, and how to have work-life balance, they’re concerned about grandparents or relatives who are immunocompromised.”

Da Costa says the plan from the Alberta government is less a plan than a set of guidelines, lacking the additional commitment of resources. On Aug. 4, Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange and Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw announced that masks would be mandatory for students in Grade 4 and above, and that reusable facemasks and hand sanitizer would be provided to schools, but Da Costa says this does little to address concerns about class sizes and job losses among custodial staff, educational assistants and other school personnel.

“When you consider that we are in a pandemic, these recent revisions to the original Ministry of Education return to school plan still do not address the fact that presenting the idea of sending kids back to school as a family’s ‘choice’ puts forth an individualized solution to a public problem, a problem that involves mental and physical health, as well as questions of equity,” Da Costa said.

“How about providing the resources for opening these schools safely? How about a multifaceted plan that involves students at different levels having different ways of going back to school?” he said. “Using the latest research, how can we make a variegated plan that can serve the needs of the range of people that are affected by this situation? That links back to providing the necessary funding and equipment, and rehiring personnel who lost their jobs earlier in the pandemic.

“It turns out that individual school boards are presenting different plans to meet the needs of their residents, but they each have a different capacity in terms of resources and space to do so. Should the health of your child, family, and greater community depend on the school board district you live in?”

Whatever the situation is come September, many parents or caregivers will face limited choices about whether they can keep their children home from school. Among those who are able to choose home-schooling, Da Costa says it’s important that they still enrol their children in school to have access to the resources the school can provide while supporting public education.

“Make sure you register through the proper channels because enrollment affects school funding for the following year,” he said. “The choices we make in September affect how public education is funded. Avail yourself of the resources your board is making available by going through the formal channels to register for school.”

Da Costa added that safe school opening is a crucial part of promoting economic stability in the province. Preventing community outbreaks and keeping school staff safe will enable increased economic participation and an eventual return to a situation resembling normal, a process that shouldn’t be rushed and that, in fact, may take years. He encourages parents, teachers and other community members to continue voicing their concerns and putting pressure on the government to take the appropriate evidence-based measures to ensure it’s done with the necessary care.

“Education and healthcare are two big per capita expenditures in Canada and provincially, and that’s why we have decent systems in both regards that consistently perform well on a range of indicators--not for everyone, obviously there’s inequalities—but investing in safe schools is investing in the future,” said Da Costa. “People should get involved, express their concerns and look for collective forms of action to participate in so that we have a healthy, safe return to school planned before we actually go back.”