Teachers, ed assistants burdened with reducing COVID risk

Educators say the province needs to provide clearer instructions and minimum standards for all schools

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Teachers, educational assistants and other support staff in K-12 schools say they will face a difficult burden in policing students around physical distancing and masking to reduce the risk of COVID-19 this fall.

After the province announced a full reopening of schools in late July, Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced this week that masks will be mandatory for Grade 4-12 students and staff when physical distancing is not possible.

She explained that if kids are working quietly and well separated in desks, not facing each other, masks may be removed. But if students are moving in the classroom, or approaching teachers or ed assistants to ask questions, masks would have to be put back on.

Hinshaw stressed students should wash hands before and after mask removal, adding that “teachers are the experts” and that they would know best when students could remove masks or not.

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But educators representing teachers, educational assistants and other support staff like librarians, receptionists and psychologists, say the province needs to provide clearer instructions and minimum standards for all schools.

“This just does not reflect the reality of our classrooms,” said Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

“We need a minimum standard, and it has to be ironed out in terms of what the expectations are, whether you’re in a desk or not, whether you’re close to another person or not.

“I am the type of teacher who likes to always move around the classroom, so what is the standard there?”

Teachers say there will be great confusion in classrooms which allow students to move around, from Grade 4 classrooms where students can sit in desks, or listen to stories on a rug, to Grade 12 students, who may spend time in desks, or at lab counters to study physics, biology or chemistry.

Government and school districts have also yet to answer questions around how they will approach gymnasiums, music rooms or libraries, where students often gather in larger groups.

The largest challenge could be lunch, when students will have to remove masks to eat, no matter how close they are to each other in a classroom, hallway, gym floor or lunchroom setting.

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And all of the policing required to keep students from transmitting COVID-19 will fall on the shoulders of staff, they say.

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“Teaching is the number one job of teachers. It is to educate students,” said Bob Cocking, ATA president for Calgary public teachers local 38.

“But to add these extra burdens where they are policing masks, where they have to monitor social distancing, telling kids what to do all the time.

“And what about when students switch classes, will teachers have to clean touch points, do you make kids wait outside in the hall until everything’s cleaned?

“And should they be wearing gloves in addition to masks when they’re doing all this?”

While the province has confirmed it’s providing PPE and cleaning supplies to school districts, there has been no confirmation that additional cleaning staff are being hired.

Members of the ATA, including Cocking and Schilling, said they have tried to reach out to the province for a meeting with Education Minister Adriana LaGrange since June but have not been able to connect, or provide feedback on planning.

“If teachers are the experts, then why isn’t the Alberta government talking to them,” Cocking asked.

Colin Aitchison, press secretary to LaGrange, said the ATA has had plenty of opportunity to connect with the province.

“Our office has provided them with numerous opportunities to discuss school re-entry with the government,” Aitchison said.

“We have encouraged their leadership to reach out to our Deputy Minister’s office numerous times since June, and to our knowledge they only did so following the announcement that students would be returning under Scenario 1.

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“They were given ample opportunity, however they chose not to engage with government.”

Staff association representatives are also worried about educational assistants whose unique work supporting special needs students could put them at increased risk.

Ed assistants work closely with students who may have physical disabilities, behavioural challenges, or unique learning needs. Often their support work requires them to stay in close proximity with students.

Jessie Olson, spokesman for Unifor Local 1990 which represents support staff like ed assistants with the Calgary Catholic School District, admits he is worried, particularly because many special needs students have sensitivity challenges or behavioural issues that prevent them from wearing masks.

“I’m concerned about the safety of my members. Ed assistants are really on the front lines, they are right next to the kids, as necessary. They are there to support and sometimes that means they are very close in proximity.”

Olson added that with the start of school still four weeks away, he hopes the province and school districts are still considering innovative ways to reduce class sizes, or even move to a Scenario 2 strategy which staggers schedules and allows no more than 20 students in a classroom.

“I hope as the province continues to learn more, that we see clearer standards for the use of PPE, for coping with class sizes and perhaps reconsidering a return under Scenario 2.”

Both the CBE and the Calgary Catholic School District are expected to release more details around their back-to-school plans next week.

eferguson@postmedia.com

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