Public Education During A Crisis - Part 1 - COVID-19 Arrives in Alberta - 31MAR20 .png

Public Education During a Crisis: COVID-19 Arrives in Alberta

*The Alberta Federation of Labour is producing a blog series which looks at what happens to public education during a time of crisis. We will evaluate what the Alberta government is doing during this global pandemic, and examine how governments can choose to either strengthen our public system, or use a time of crisis as a catalyst to attack, undermine, and privatize our public education.

This is the first of the series, laying the groundwork for how we got from COVID-19 first arriving here in Alberta to where we are today.

 

PART 1: COVID-19 Arrives in Alberta

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March 4, 2020

COVID-19 was making its way across the globe, bringing China and Italy to their knees, overwhelming hospitals, claiming countless lives.

Here in Alberta, there were no confirmed cases. It was business as usual. Albertans continued to go to work, students continued to go to school.

 

March 5, 2020 (Alberta has its 1st case)

Alberta recorded its first confirmed case of COVID-19, but life here continued on as usual.

 

March 11, 2020 (5 new cases, 9 total)

The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. In Alberta, things still remained business as usual.

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March 12, 2020 (4 new cases, 13 total)

Change started. Alberta banned all gatherings of more than 250 people. Albertans still went to work, and students to school.

Many educators, parents, and trustees argued that most schools were gatherings of over 250 people. The Alberta Government suggested schools engage in social distancing practices, and encourage proper hand-washing measures.

This advice was severely disconnected from the reality of Alberta schools. After decades of chronic under-funding many classrooms are overcrowded beyond built capacity.

Suggesting social distancing in high schools where students must share lockers and congregate in hallways between classes, felt like an out of touch proposal. And of course there was the impracticality of asking 5-year-olds to practice social distancing and to wash their hands and commonly used objects after every use.

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Teachers began posting photos of their attempts at following social distancing measures, setting desks 6 feet apart, showing classrooms that could now only safely seat 8 students.

Zero recognition was given to the many students who rely on public transportation to get to school, making social distancing an unaffordable luxury for many. 

 

March 15, 2020 (17 new cases, 56 total) 

Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange spoke at the daily COVID-19 update to announce that K-12 classes would be cancelled immediately, but that schools would remain open.

At the time, LaGrange promised “Students will progress to their next grade level next year” and that “Teachers and other school staff will still be expected to work, either from home or at their workplace”

She went on to say diploma exams would continue, while falsely describing diploma exams as “essential for post secondary acceptance”. (Not true. The Minister of Education can cancel or defer diploma exams, as seen during the 2013 Calgary floods, and the 2015 Fort McMurray and 2019 High Level wildfires. Post secondary institutions look at final grades for admission.)

Most importantly, Minister LaGrange very clearly and methodically announced that School authorities will receive their full allotment of funding for the 2019/2020 school year”.

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March 17, 2020 (23 new cases, 97 total)

Day two of cancelled classes. Many families were caught in the speed at which the pandemic was hitting, focused on scrambling for last-minute child care, or grappling with how and when to go to work. 

No provincial directive was provided, other than LaGrange’s statement that “teachers and staff would continue to work”

In response, schools attempted to continue a business as usual approach, meaning many families already started receiving homework and assignments from their schools, compounding existing financial, physical, and social stresses. 

 

March 20, 2020 (49 new cases, 195 total)

Minister LaGrange released a letter to parents with ‘guidelines’ for student learning including recommended hours of study. Due to the near impossibility of implementation, diploma exams were finally cancelled. The Minister also indicated that “Teachers will be responsible for assessing a student’s progress and assigning a final grade”. 

These announcements showed no foresight regarding the trajectory of this pandemic. 

There was no indication of what measures are being taken to ensure consistency of programming across the province. No consideration to students who may not have access to technology or the internet. Zero discussion of students who may now be responsible for helping with care for younger siblings or of the role parents are expected to play in this new virtual schooling. 

Providing these guidelines gave the illusion of coordinated and organized programming. Yet, the reality remains that assessing students and attempting to continue business as usual, is simultaneously confusing and ignorant to the realities so many Alberta families are currently living.

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March 28, 2020 (79 new cases, 621 total)

On a quiet Saturday afternoon, Minister LaGrange put out a surprise statement which directly contradicted her funding commitment made only 13 days prior. 

Albertans were told through an online release that school boards would no longer receive their promised full funding for the 2019-20 school year - a cut that will directly cause the layoff of 25,000 education workers.

Response has been swift, calling the announcement “cold-hearted, dishonest and irresponsible as well as “cowardly and hypocritical”. 

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Today - March 31, 2020 (64 new cases, 754 total)

Alberta families are now weeks into home learning, with little clarity on how parents, students or education workers are to move forward in the shadows of a global pandemic.

Instead, the UCP government has already taken this opportunity to further undermine and under-fund public education. Doing so continues to widen the divide between have and have not students. 

The confusion, the inconsistency, the undermining is not negligence, or incompetence. It is the point. 

More on that next time.

 

*The Alberta Federation of Labour is producing a blog series which looks at what happens to public education during a time of crisis. We will evaluate what the Alberta government is doing during this global pandemic, and examine how governments can choose to either strengthen our public system, or use a time of crisis as a catalyst to attack, undermine, and privatize our public education.