Back-to-school never looked so daunting. As students sharpened their pencils and labeled their duotangs under the cloud of COVID-19 this summer, Premier Kenney electrified a new storm when he decided to forgo a real back-to-school provincial plan in favour of outsourcing health-policy decisions to school boards.
Without robust provincial guidelines and appropriate funding for classroom COVID-19 policies, unequipped schools were left to their own devices.
Then, barely three weeks into the 2021-22 school year, the unthinkable happened. Our hospitals collapsed, and months of UCP recklessness forced the province to declare a state of public health emergency that ushered in a slew of new COVID-19 restrictions on Sept. 15.
Children however, remained an afterthought— a scribble along the margins — in the UCP’s announcement.
AUPE Vice-President Susan Slade calls the Premier’s inaction a “double betrayal” for parents. She’s a nurse, and a mom, with a blended family of five kids and one grandchild. She says that Kenney’s Sept. 15 performance was like “fingernails to a chalkboard.”
“I feel so deeply for Albertans with youngsters right now,” she says. “As a mom, I know how hard it’s been, navigating this crisis, and it’s even harder if you have kids in elementary, where most of the classroom outbreaks are. When you’re a guardian all you want is to make your children feel safe and held. But you can’t do that if you’re just as vulnerable as your own kids. You can’t be the rock or the reassurance. It’s so disempowering."
"When you’re a guardian all you want is to make your children feel safe and held. But you can’t do that if you’re just as vulnerable as your own kids. You can’t be the rock or the reassurance. It’s so disempowering.”
Who it hurts
COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, and among the unvaccinated, which includes all school children under the age of 12, it’s an opportunist to the extreme. All students will feel pandemic pressure this year. But as a union committed to justice, our members are especially concerned about the kids who were swept out to sea in the first, second and third waves, and risk drowning in the fourth. We’re concerned about underserved children, including:
Kids with specialized learning needs
Our members who work in Catholic Schools know that the move to online learning in March 2020 was necessary for stopping the spread of COVID-19. What wasn’t necessary was Education Minister LeGrange exploiting this transition to cut approximately 22,000 school staff, including education aides (EAs), who are a key support for kids with specialized learning needs. Without them, many children cannot navigate school classrooms or playgrounds, never mind online learning.
Kids in the system
Alberta teacher and Inclusive Learning team member, Marie Perry, said it best in her guest blog on the Support our Students webpage in March 2020:
“I’m thinking of the students that can only access the internet while sitting in public places, that live in group homes, that live in homes with domestic violence, that may use shelters or be street involved. I’m thinking of all the students who are recent immigrants, or refugees… What is the plan for the students who, for a lot of different reasons, will not be successful at this sudden transition to online learning.”
It’s no secret that rural communities usually suffer weaker internet service, and according to the province, 80% of First Nations and 67% of Alberta’s rural areas can’t count on reliable broadband internet coverage. This inequity would have posed a serious barrier to online learning for Alberta children in large pockets of the province where many of our members live and work.
Only time will tell how deeply the Alberta government’s cuts and slap-dash “plans” have affected Alberta’s most vulnerable children. But as Kenney’s hands-off approach to the fourth wave threatens to wash up new inequities, especially between schools in different financial situations, one thing is certain — his playground antics won’t make for a smooth and inclusive 2021-22 school year.
That’s why AUPE joined a coalition of allies in August 2021, who collectively sent a letter to the federal government asking the Prime Minister to compensate for the UCP’s negligence and provide additional funding to all Alberta schools for N95 masks, HEPA filtration systems, and CO2 monitoring tools—so every child is protected.
“Working people are once again coming together, like we have throughout the pandemic, to fill the craters left by this provincial government,” says Slade. “We might not pull the strings in this province, but we pull our weight and then some, and we always do it in service of our most vulnerable neighbours.”