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“We will weather the storm”: Local educators prepping instruction with empty classrooms

Coronavirus hit home in a big way as classes in schools across the province were suspended until further notice by the Alberta government Sunday afternoon.

Coronavirus hit home in a big way as classes in schools across the province were suspended until further notice by the Alberta government Sunday afternoon.

Local staff at Grande Prairie and District Catholic Schools (GPCSD), Peace Wapiti School Division (PWSD) and Valhalla Community School are preparing for a new reality.

“We’re going to do our very best to weather this storm, and we will weather it,” said Steve Mumert, Valhalla principal.

“This is a situation evolving virtually minute-by-minute, so our primary concern is the wellbeing of parents, students and staff.”

“We’re trying to figure out where families are at in terms of technology … to determine how we can support our kiddos for the next little while, so they’re continuing to receive an education,” said Mandy Jensen, principal of St. Mary’s School in Sexsmith.

Adriana LaGrange, Alberta’s education minister, said during a press conference Sunday classes are cancelled indefinitely. School authorities will continue maintenance and administration.

Provincial achievement tests are cancelled while diploma exams are at this time scheduled to go forward, LaGrange said.

PWSD and staff declined all media inquiries.

“The constant flow of new information to us, as the situation unfolds, prevents us from committing to interviews at this time,” said Angela Sears, PWSD communications officer. 

Sears said the division staff are taking time to develop a learning plan for students, and “an official timeline for continuing student learning will be announced in due course.”

PWSD has 6,000 kindergarten to Grade 12 students and 375 teachers and 600 non-teaching staff, as well as 100 bus routes, Sears said.

Karl Germann, GPCSD superintendent, said the Catholic district has an enrollment of approximately 5,600 students; each school in Beaverlodge and Sexsmith has approximately 300 students.

Valhalla Community School has six teachers and 99 students. 

All bus routes in all divisions have been suspended.

GPCSD’s Germann said he understands classes are cancelled indefinitely, “most likely until the end of June.”

He said the district is developing an “at-home platform” combining online education, booklets and assigned activities for phys-ed.

GPCSD hopes to get information to families about the new platform “next week,” he said.

At St. Mary’s in Sexsmith, principal Jensen told the News Tuesday she is in discussions with GPCSD as to what the new learning process will look like, so there’s “consistency across the district”.

Jensen said school staff are looking at “what technology different families have and the needs of individual students”.

She said surveys were sent out asking families what devices they have, how many devices they have, the quality of Internet connection at home and the number of children. 

“The learning process is not going to look the same for everybody - it can’t,” Jensen said.

“It doesn’t inside the building, and it can’t outside the building.”

She said St. Mary’s hasn’t sent out any schoolwork this week because they don’t want to rush a new format, but she hopes to have learning plans rolled out by next week.

“We’re really thinking everything through … to meet kids where they’re at,” she said.

Currently, Jensen said the staff are focusing on professional development. 

If students don’t have a reliable Internet connection, they can use more booklets and paper than their classmates, Jensen said.

Some students may work more with paper and others more online, she said.

At Valhalla, Mumert said reformatted education will “absolutely” involve online learning, while for kindergarten to Grade 4 students the parents will be provided teaching materials.

It’s hard to say at this point whether the resources provided to parents will be paper or online due to fears of the transmission of the virus on paper, he said.

“This is unchartered territory,” Mumert said.

The online learning platform Google Classroom can be used for students from grades 5 and up, he added. 

Mumert said staff are aware some students may not have high-quality Internet connection, and teachers will likely provide paper packages to them. The school will take guidance from Alberta Health Services on how to safely deliver them, he said.

He hopes to get the learning process going again as soon as possible, perhaps by next Monday, March 23, he said.

Germann said parents won’t be allowed into Catholic schools this week, and next week schools will contact parents as to when they can pick up any personal items belonging to their children.

Mumert said Valhalla Community School isn’t completely shut to visitors, but parents are encouraged to wait until next week to pick items up while staff organize.  

While Valhalla Community School offers kindergarten to Grade 9 education, St. Mary’s currently goes up to Grade 12.

With the diploma exams still expected to continue for Grade 12 students, Jensen acknowledged students may be going into the big test with less in-class instruction to work with. 

She said she expects the Alberta government will recognize this disadvantage to students and will keep this in mind when evaluating exam results.

She said she couldn’t speak further as to how diplomas exams will be fairly administered.

“We have fantastic teachers in our high school who will continue to support the kids and ensure they’re learning what they need to learn,” Jensen said.

Students will also likely be able to communicate with teachers via phone and Internet, she added.

Only one student at St. Mary’s will take the diploma exams, Jensen said. At the end of the school year St. Mary’s is closing its high school program.

While LaGrange said teachers will work at school or home, Valhalla’s teachers are at the school everyday to keep track of changing plans, Mumert said.

Jensen said St. Mary’s teachers are encouraged to work at school rather than at home, unless they’re ill or taking care of an ill loved one. 

“There’s a huge task ahead for teachers, but we’re in this together and we will support them and work with them to make sure our kids still get what they need,” she said.

She said one way the school office can support teachers is keeping an open door and answering teachers’ questions, as well as through ongoing discussions on how to meet needs.

She said the school staff largely went in Monday not knowing what to expect, but by the end of the day there was a positive mood and excitement about getting back to teaching.

Mumert concurred Valhalla School staff are required to be at school if they don’t have symptoms. Staff morale is good he said, and a lot of disinfecting and hand washing is going on among the staff.

Unfortunately, Mumert said options are suspended since they mainly involve hands-on learning, including junior high outdoor education. 

He said music and art classes can’t be done outside the building.

“We have to be realistic about what they’re able to do in a home setting,” he said.

Primary grades will focus on math and language arts while grades 5 to 9 will focus on core courses (math, language social and science), he said.

At St. Mary’s, Jensen said there’s still a place for options, though they may look different. Foods classes may continue in the form of students baking at home or cooking with their families, she said.

Jensen said she’s not concerned about whether students will be able to progress to the next grade, and she doesn’t foresee an issue with this.

Mumert said Valhalla is concerned with grade progression. When students do return to the classroom, he said teachers will work with students to determine where they are at in their learning and will address any deficits found.

Brad Quarin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Town & Country News

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