INNISFAIL - Maintaining and supporting student mental health during the latest shift to online learning will be a high priority for teachers, staff and others, says Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools (RDCRS) superintendent Kathleen Finnigan and Chinook’s Edge School Division (CESD) superintendent Kurt Sacher.
Students across the province returned to online learning this week until at least May 25 as part of new provincial health measures aimed at reducing COVID-19.
"The two week reset in the schools is being driven by operational issues and much less so the public health issues," said Premier Jason Kenney during a May 5 press conference, the day after new restrictions were announced.
He said there were 80,000 students, teachers and staff who were in self-isolation at the time.
"That will only go up," said Kenney. "And the department of Education, based on consultation with superintendents and school boards, believes that it will very soon become practically impossible to operate many schools with so many people in isolation. So they believe the prudent thing to do, in order to save the rest of the school year, is to hit the reset button for a couple of weeks."
Although classes have shifted from in-person to online several times during the pandemic, the need for mental health support for students has never been greater, said Sacher.
“Families can get support over this time if their child should be struggling with emotional distress,” said the superintendent. “We are saying please watch closely. It’s a big priority for us and we certainly want be helpful.”
“There are always some of our students that have more emotional distress when they are not in the face-to-face learning environment. That’s why we believe so strongly in that face-to-face environment, for the added advantage when it comes to added mental health supports and the connection to other people.”
He said parents or guardians who believe their child may be having emotional distress are encouraged to access the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868, text CONNECT to 686868 or visit kidshelphone.ca.
CESD has schools across the region, while RDCRS has schools in Olds and Innisfail, as well as elsewhere.
RDCRS superintendent Finnigan says supporting mental health is key for students and staff, including during the move to online.
“I would agree (with Sacher),” she said. “We have a really good division team to support the mental wellness of students and staff.”
She said the move to online is prudent considering the number of current cases in the province.
“This was a really good move because the pause breaks the circuit and will get us back into schools sooner,” she said.
In RDCRS, about 10 per cent of staff and 15 per cent of students were self-isolating last week, said Finnigan, noting there are 10,356 students and 1,500 staff in the division.
Between five and 10 per cent of CESD students are currently in self-isolation, representing somewhere between 550 and 1,100 students, said Sacher.
“That is number that has been growing recently for sure,” he said. “As the numbers in the community go up, we notice an uptick in the number of cases where we have to help Alberta Health with some of the preliminary contact tracing and work with families as a precaution.
Both Finnigan and Sacher said their respective divisions are well prepared and equipped to move to online learning.
“Our staff and administrators have been amazing transitioning back and forth over the past 14 months,” Sacher said.