A plan for a safe school opening

Let me start by saying that we all want this pandemic to be over. We all want things back to how they used to be, and to have our kids return to school under some semblance of normality. 

The problem is, we are not there yet. 

Like it or not, the hard truth of our present moment is that the pandemic continues. Locally, nationally and internationally the pandemic is not over yet, even though it may feel like it in some ways, and even though we all want COVID-19 to be a thing of the past. I agree that, we need to find a way to live with COVID-19, as Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw suggests, but part of living with this deadly virus is still doing what’s best to keep our schools as safe as possible. 

This past week EPSB released the division’s re-entry plan.  Our plan for the start of the 2021-22 school year is similar to last year’s plan, with a focus on reducing risk through safety measures and family choice, and an emphasis on high quality teaching and learning. Last year, families told the Edmonton Public School Board that they felt comfortable sending their children to in-person learning because of the measures we had in place, including wearing masks. As we did last fall, Edmonton Public Schools will require masks for all students who are developmentally, physically and psychologically able to wear one. Our plan is based on public feedback that Trustees and Administration have been hearing from students, staff and families. It also takes direction and advice from the Government of Alberta into account.

I have received dozens of emails, phone calls and texts from people asking that EPSB keep in place the measures we had in place last year including masking, cohorting and screening for illness. I’ve also received some messages from people opposed to such safety measures, especially masking, but those voices are very much the minority and they don’t consider all the factors involved with public policy decisions. Parents are asking for safety measures not just for their own children, many of whom cannot yet be vaccinated, but because of the unpredictability of the delta variant and the concern of spreading COVID to other students and staff, including those who have been vaccinated. There are a lot of people who care about each other in this city and the emails I have received in support of continuing health protocols come from a place of caring for others. 

I think it is important for everyone to understand that masks will allow our classrooms to return more quickly to a nearly normal state.. Masks means we can resume field trips and invite volunteers into our schools. Masks also mean more families will choose in-person learning for their child this fall, which is also positive as we know the ideal space for many children to learn is in the classroom with their peers and teachers, face-to-face. 

EPSB Administration wrote our school division’s re-entry plan and ran it by the Board of Trustees. We supported it. The Board also passed the following motion at our August 13 special board meeting in response to the overwhelming number of emails we received from parents, students and staff asking us to step up in the absence of provincial direction about back to school: 

Given that we are still in a pandemic and that children under the age of 12 cannot be vaccinated, the Board of Trustees takes the position that testing, contract tracing, self-isolation, mandatory masking, cohorts, and screening for COVID-19 are critical measures that help keep staff and students as safe as possible. 

We have a green light to make our own plan. EPSB and other school divisions are able to put in place additional health measures that exceed provincial guidelines because the Government of Alberta gave us this authority. We are not going against what Dr. Hinshaw has said; rather, we are doing what the overwhelming majority of the families we serve have asked us to do, for which we have been granted authority by the Chief Medical Officer of Health and Alberta’s Minister of Education. Three of the province’s big universities took a similar step this week by also mandating masks for the fall. 

EPSB will continue to work with Alberta Health Services. We will continue to monitor and track data, in particular vaccination rates, so that the back to school plan can be adjusted if necessary. Part of those adjustments may very well include easing the use of masks for some or all of our students. The measures that the division has put in place are based on what we know about COVID right now, including highly-transmissible variants of concern, and the belief that the safety of students and staff must guide decisions for the fall. 

The reality is, students under the age of 12 (for EPSB this is about 57,000 elementary students) cannot yet be vaccinated. The reality is that, when school begins, EPSB will not be notified when there is a positive case of COVID in our schools (like we were last year). The reality is, double dose vaccination rates among 12-17 year olds are low in some areas of our city. The reality is, the impact of the delta variant on children is not yet clear (in the US it’s looking bad, in the UK where vaccination rates are higher the impact does not appear to be as severe.) 

These are relevant facts and they should not be in dispute. If we can also agree that masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19 (and I recognize not everyone agrees, despite indisputable scientific evidence that they clearly do) then why wouldn’t we put masks in place to keep kids and staff in our schools as safe as possible?

As a parent and as a Trustee, I feel far more comfortable with a solid plan with strong restrictions at the front end which  then loosen up as the risk goes down, rather than the other way around. 

Watching what has happened on a provincial level, I can see how tough it has been for Albertans to be told one thing and then have it shift again in just a few weeks time. As school Trustees we have long been seeking clarity and certainty from Alberta’s elected leaders, and I believe parents and families of EPSB should expect the same from us.

For the past four years I have taken my job as your public school Trustee very seriously. I have made it my goal to always take the time to listen, to people, to hear all views and to make decisions in the best interests of the children and families that I have the privilege to serve. Along the way, as I have done my best to meet this goal, I have learned that sometimes the hard decisions require the kind of leadership that steps up to do what may not be universally popular, but that you know in your heart is the right thing to do, and always in the interests of the people your serve.

We have an opportunity right now to do our part to end this pandemic, for everyone’s sake, including the kids of EPSB. If you haven’t done so yet, please get vaccinated. Care for each other. Listen to each other and find ways to heal rather than to provoke and divide. Our kids deserve a future that’s built on tolerance, respect and the idea that we are a stronger society when we care for the most vulnerable. 

We can, and we will, get through this together.

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