INNISFAIL - With kindergarten to Grade 12 students across Alberta set to return to schools on Jan. 10, Chinook’s Edge School Division (CESD) officials are hoping to have medical masks and test kits available for all students and staff when classes resume.
The province announced Dec. 30 that the return to classes originally scheduled to take place Jan. 3 was being delayed in response to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Including all in-person and online learning, the delay was being made to give school divisions time to prepare safety measures.
“This pause will give teachers, school administrators and school authorities more time to plan for students to return safely to learning,” said Education Minister Adriana LaGrange.
The 11,000-student CESD is headquartered in Innisfail, and includes schools in Olds, Didsbury, Cremona, Carstairs and Sundre.
In a letter sent to parents on Dec. 31, CESD superintendent Kurt Sacher said: “When students return to school on January 10, we are anticipating that the government of Alberta will provide high-grade medical masks and rapid test kits for each student and staff member that will be available for distribution.”
The delay in reopening may cause inconvenience to some parents and students, he acknowledged.
“We know this announcement may create childcare challenges for some families, and we thank you for accommodating this government priority to reduce the spread of the rapidly spreading Omicron variant and to allow school jurisdictions time to prepare for this newest reality,” he said.
If necessary, temporary online learning in some or all of CESD schools will take place starting Jan. 10, he said.
The Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA) is calling on the government to take proactive measures in light of the Omicron spread, including increasing the availability of substitute teachers and cancelling January diploma examinations.
“School communities expect the mediocre measures that fail in Alberta’s fourth wave will be strengthened for the return to school next week,” said ATA president Jason Schilling.
Vaccination procedure in place
Meanwhile, when schools reopen on Jan. 10, the new CESD procedure regarding COVID-19 vaccinations of teachers and other staff will come into effect that same day.
Approved in November, the harm reduction administrative procedure requires all staff, trustees, practicum students and volunteers to either provide proof of full COVID-19 vaccination, commit to rapid testing, or have an approved medical exemption.
The procedure addresses requirements set out by Occupational Health and Safety, Alberta Education, Alberta Health Services, and division insurance providers, he said.
“We believe that these steps will actually help preserve in-person, in-class, in-school uninterrupted learning and uninterrupted operations,” he said.
“It was really important to the board that we had a plan that respected the personal choice of individual staff members. COVID-19 is now defined as a workplace hazard by Occupational Heath and Safety, so that was a key consideration.”
The division will be covering the cost of the rapid testing for staff until the end of the 2021-22 school year, he said.
Contractors, practicum students and volunteers will have to pay for their own rapid testing, the procedure states.
Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools is currently preparing an administrative procedure regarding vaccination of teachers and other staff.
The division includes schools in Innisfail and Olds.