May 20th, 2024

School class sizes were a concern before COVID-19, SACPA told

By Jensen, Randy on September 18, 2020.

Tim Kalinowski

Lethbridge Herald

The Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs welcomed Alberta School Councils Association (ASCA) president Brandi Rai to its weekly livestream speaker series on Thursday.

ASCA represents parent councils across Alberta, and advocates for their concerns with the provincial government.

Rai said even before the COVID-19 pandemic schools were struggling with class sizes and mental health challenges with students. These problems have only worsened now, she explained, with additional stress and burdens placed on teachers and students because of the virus.

“Just a few months ago many of us were plodding along as parents, volunteering in our school, working, carting our children to and from a half dozen curricular activities,” she said. “You know, experiencing a typical school year in Alberta. And then a global pandemic happened, and for many of us our worlds froze as we collectively tried to learn how to protect our vulnerable, how to maintain an economy, and how to live in a world with a virus we know nothing about and have no vaccine for.

“It can be easy to shift our narrative to what does school look like now that COVID is in our daily vernacular, but before we do that I believe it is crucial to look at how public education already had some gaps in the system.”

Rai explained this point further.

“From our organization’s standpoint, public education with all its many choices, and its wonderful opportunities, was already leaving students behind,” she stated.

“Crowded classrooms. School buildings that need some extra TLC. Children with learning needs and limited support. Lack of assessment for children with learning needs. Lack of funding for all facets of education, including buildings, maintenance, staffing, support staff – all of this existed before COVID spread through our communities. The outdated curriculum. The gaps related to mental health for staff, students and family. All of this existed before COVID. Inequities in the system between the have and the have-not schools, even within the same district, existed before COVID. Racism, sexism, ableism and discrimination against queer students, family and staff. All existed before COVID.

“And all of those things were waiting there for us as we re-entered school this fall.”

Keeping these facts in mind, ASCA has been meeting with the Ministry of Education to advise them of its concerns with re-entry plans into schools, Rai stated.

“But those gaps that were there have widened, friends,” she told SACPA viewers. “Now we have those same overcrowded classrooms, with children and staff wearing masks, hoping a layer of PPE will prevent them from contracting a virus that can decimate their lives, or the lives of their loved ones and communities.”

While praising school districts like those in Lethbridge which have set up a “monumental’ online learning program, Rai said that was not an option in some school districts, and school boards have not done enough to consult with parents and families. That was understandable, she said, in wake of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 this spring, summer and coming into the fall return to classes. But, Rai emphasized, it is vital those lines of communication be fully reopened once again.

“As schools have reopened, and families have decided on in-person or online learning, there is a great opportunity for boards and schools to work with their local school councils to create the best possible outcomes for students during this pandemic,” Rai said. “We have encouraged partners to engage with their school councils and really lift that parent voice up to the forefront of the decisions they are making.”

Rai felt the pandemic may even have a slight upside in that governments may be forced, by the necessity of keeping students and staff safe from COVID-19, to deal with some of the longstanding systemic issues afflicting Alberta’s education system.

“This is not a current school board problem, or a current government problem,” she acknowledged. “Chronic underfunding of a world-class, growing, education system has existed for decades. We have great opportunity to collaborate with our current government and stakeholders to bring these issues to the forefront under the lens of a global pandemic, and to make systemic changes that help students survive and thrive during school in 2020.”

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