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'Operational pressures:' Calgary schools shift to at-home learning for grades 7 to 12

CALGARY — Schools in Calgary are to move to at-home learning starting Monday for students in grades 7 to 12.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange says the change, due to COVID-19, is to last for two weeks and came at the urging of public and Catholic school boards in the city.

"While the preference is to learn in school, we recognize some school boards are dealing with operational pressures due to rising COVID-19 cases within their community," LaGrange said Wednesday.

"I'm responding to the boards’ request and respecting their local autonomy."

School boards can ask to move online for a number of reasons, including high COVID-19 case counts, high numbers of students and staff in quarantine and a shortage of substitute teachers.

"My understanding is that over the last number of days those school divisions have had difficulty in ensuring that they have a teacher in front of every classroom," said LaGrange.

"When I heard earlier today that one school division indicated they had a shortage of approximately 170 substitute teachers, that was very concerning to me."

LaGrange said she has not received an official request from any other school board for a similar move to online learning.

Opposition NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said Premier Jason Kenney's United Conservative government has underplayed the severity of COVID-19's impact on schools, this time causing stress and frustration for 80,000 students and their families. 

"Jason Kenney clearly doesn't have any idea what's happening inside Alberta classrooms or communities," said Hoffman.

"He has failed to give Alberta schools the resources they need to keep classrooms safe.

"The reasons the UCP gave for moving these students are exactly the factors we warned them about: staff shortages, school closures, too many students in isolation, and community spread. All of these problems were foreseeable months ago, and Jason Kenney did nothing."

Alberta has outbreaks in more than 180 schools, with more than 2,000 cases. Nine schools are currently doing online learning.

Marilyn Dennis, board chair with the Calgary Board of Education, said in a news release that the greatest impacts of COVID-19 have been in schools with higher grades.

Alberta’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, also said there has been a sharp rise in cases among school-aged Albertans.

The province, with 15,569 active infections, currently has the highest rate of active cases in Canada, driven mainly by the more-contagious variant strains of the novel coronavirus.

On Wednesday, the province reported 1,412 new cases of COVID-19 and eight additional deaths due to the virus. There were 420 people in hospital because of COVID-19, with 92 in intensive care.

Variants now comprise 53 per cent of active cases.

Kenney has said the COVID-19 battle hinges on getting a critical mass of Albertans vaccinated while preventing the sharply rising case counts from overwhelming the health system.

Alberta has administered one million doses of vaccine, but has seen daily new infections rise above 1,000 a day for the last week.

Kenney has said he still hopes public-health restrictions can be lifted by June. But Hinshaw warned Tuesday that if case counts keep rising, more measures may be needed.

— By Dean Bennett in Edmonton

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 14, 2021.

The Canadian Press