By KENDALL KING, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on January 4, 2022.
Local school boards are preparing for students to return to class on Jan. 10 after Alberta’s government announced an extension of the winter break on Dec. 30.
Students at Medicine Hat Public School Division and Medicine Hat Catholic Board of Education were slated to return to class Wednesday. Superintendents for both divisions say the additional days will be used to prepare for possible future outcomes, such as a shift to online learning.
“Certainly, with the rising COVID numbers – in particular with Omicron – we weren’t really surprised to see this decision made,” MHCBE superintendent, Dwayne Zarichny, told the News. “It should give us a bit of lead time in order to get ready for whatever might come.”
Staff and educators at MHPSD are also using the time to prepare, superintendent Mark Davidson told the News.
“If we have to shift a class, grade or school online; staff need to be ready to make that shift on pretty short notice,” said Davidson. “Even if class isn’t shifted online, there may be a fair number of children who are isolating but well enough to complete school, and so teachers need to be prepared to provide that service to students both at home and in front of them, which is really quite challenging.”
In addition to preparing for a possible shift to online learning, the extra week will be used to implement updated COVID-19 procedures and make necessary personal protective equipment and rapid testing kits accessible. Alberta Health and the province’s Municipal Affair’s PPE Task Force will provide 16.5 million and 8.6 million respectively.
“Based on what I’ve heard, (the provincial government is) looking to ensure that schools are ready for what is likely to be a disrupted number of weeks in terms of student and staff absences,” Davidson said. “And so, they wanted to provide time prior to students returning, to get masks to us that they would like students and staff to use and get the rapid testing kits that students and families are invited to use.”
Davidson said he’s heard mixed reactions from parents and students about the delayed return to school. For many staff, says Davidson, the delay generates concerns over what the second half of the school year will look like.
“Teaching is always hard work,” said Davidson. “The level of vigilance that’s required day-to-day in order to enforce the Chief Medical Officer of Health’s directive around masking, hand sanitizing, distancing as much as possible and so on; it has complicated the work a great deal.”
“Whenever there’s a shift, it does cause additional stress,” he said.
Another factor causing stress for division staff is the possibility of wide-scale educator absences.
“I think the concern is that because Omicron spreads so quickly and so easily, you could have a significant portion of your faculty out on leave at one time,” said Zarichny. “While we haven’t run into a shortage of substitute teachers in a significant way yet, a major event like that would put pressure on our system and then we would probably have no choice but to move our students online.”