One in six students in the Calgary public school system will be doing online learning rather than heading back to class in person in September amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
As students prepare to return to classes next Tuesday for the first time since schools shut their doors due to COVID-19 in March, about 16 to 17 per cent of students are enrolled in online learning, according to the Calgary Board of Education (CBE).
- YOUR QUESTIONS ANSWERED: Don't worry if you missed your chance to ask questions in our Facebook Live at 1 p.m. Wednesday with host Shannon Scott and guests Marilyn Dennis, chair of the board of trustees for the Calgary Board of Education and Dr. Raj Bhardwaj, an urgent care doctor working in downtown Calgary. You can still hear their answers by clicking on the video embedded in this story.
That's roughly 21,000 students who will be taking the CBE's online learning hub for a test-drive from remote locations, while the rest will be following safety guidelines in classrooms and hallways.
Marilyn Dennis, the chair of the CBE's board of trustees, is taking part in a Facebook Live with CBC Calgary that will take place at 1 p.m. on Wednesday to answer questions from parents, students and teachers.
Ahead of the panel, Dennis joined the Calgary Eyeopener Wednesday morning to discuss how prepared the CBE is for online learning, what safety precautions schools will be following, why the school year was not delayed, and more.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: The Alberta Teachers Association asked to delay the start of this school year. Why did the Calgary Board of Education decide not to delay the first day of school?
A: We can absolutely appreciate the anxiousness that our staff, that students and families may be feeling right now. We know that this will be a fall school start-up like we've never seen before.
Sept. 1 is the official start date for CBE schools, but we will be using a staggered-entry approach for that first week of school to allow for a smooth transition, and to allow time for staff, students and families to get used to what the new routines are going to look like.
Q: And what will that look like? What's being done to make our schools safe?
A: As has been shared by [Alberta's chief medical officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw], we can't prevent or mitigate every single risk that there is to going back to school. But there are a number of different measures that we're putting in place to be able to keep students and staff as safe as possible.
Regular hand-washing, physical distancing where we can, putting students into cohorts or groups where students and staff will be together, and not necessarily mixing with the rest of the school population. The use of masks, entrance and exit doors, directional signs in the hallways and various other things like that.
We're using a number of different strategies to try and keep students and staff as safe as possible.
Q: It's still not enough for a lot of parents; they're worried about the safety of their children so much, they're opting for online learning. What sort of numbers are you seeing on that front?
A: The deadline for registration for hub learning was Monday; we have approximately 21,000 students who will be participating. That number may go down as more information is available to families. They have up until September 1 to change their mind.
Q: Are you staffed sufficiently to handle that major spike in online learning that you're seeing already, and a bigger spike if schools have to close again?
A: Every student, of course, is attached to a school, and so the schools will be staffed based on their population. And schools will assign certain teachers to do hub learning, and some teachers to do in-class learning. That's essentially how the staffing will work.
Q: Is the online learning track more comprehensive and more structured now? It was all over the map during the lockdown.
A: Certainly, there's been some time to develop that a little further. It will be more structured; for example, if you're doing a biology 30 class for hub, it will be at a specific day, at a specific time, where you need to sign in to do that, just like it would be in school right.
Q: Experts say some students just don't absorb the education the way they would if they were in person. Are you concerned about that?
A: I'm concerned about learning gaps, generally. I think we've had some students who probably haven't participated very much in education for five months. I would say, too, that online learning will look different than in-person learning, but we will absolutely do our very best.
Q: Part of students' mental and their physical health is school sports, which is being postponed at the high school level until at least October. Why did you decide to hold off at the moment?
A: Given the cohorting parameters that are in place, fall athletics have been postponed. We will revisit this decision by Oct. 1, and if we're able to adjust then, we will. But for right now, getting back to learning will be the primary focus for our student athletes.