By KENDALL KING, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on January 11, 2022.
An email sent from the Medicine Hat Public School Division to parents Sunday warns of possible class, grade and school closures as a result of teacher absences.
Excerpts from the email read: “The latest wave of the pandemic may prove to be our most challenging yet. Because we no longer receive information from Alberta Health Services regarding positive cases in schools (students or staff) we have no reliable data to help us project student and staff absence levels … As this email is being written, we are receiving notifications from staff that they are unable to report to work face to face due to the onset of symptoms or because they have tested positive … We fully expect that there will be occasions when (we) do not have enough staff to serve a class, grade level or school.”
There are currently no class, grade or school closures within the city’s public division, says superintendent Mark Davidson.
“We were able to cover every teacher absence today (but) we are not able to cover all of our educational assistants, which can pose significant challenges depending on the needs of the children that those education assistants are assigned to support,” Davidson told the News.
He estimates approximately eight per cent of staff are currently absent in the division, largely due to the onset of COVID-19 symptoms or positive test results. While there is a pool of substitute teachers to draw from, Davidson fears that number will also dwindle if cases increase.
“We have maybe 150 substitute teachers … but we share many of those substitute teachers with Medicine Hat Catholic, as well as Prairie Rose Public Schools,” said Davidson. “A significant portion of that larger list don’t sub during certain parts of the year because they’re retired and go do other things or they travel. Then there’s another group of folks in that group who’ve removed themselves from service at peak moments of the pandemic because they feel they need to do so in order to protect their own health. So, that list is significantly diminished, probably by about half.
“Evert day we’ll take a look at the absence submissions that are put into our system late in the evening and into the following morning. As soon as we’re aware of a challenge, then we start working to redeploy staff in order to try and address that challenge.
“I have no idea what things will look like five school days or three weeks from now, but at the moment, we’ve been able to address teacher absence.”
Davidson expects closures but hopes to approach it strategically.
“I think if we’re making decisions about closures, it’ll be a class-by-class, maybe a grade-level-by-grade-level decision,” he said. “To direct a class or grade level to at-home learning, or to seek the minister’s permission to direct a school to at-home learning, is a last-resort that would only come up if we were unable to fulfil positions safely and with qualified people.”
“The greatest challenge we face is not knowing what we’re going to be dealing with until we’re expected to address it,” said Davidson. “We can’t anticipate our level of absence because we get no data from Alberta Health Services. We’ve been told we won’t get anything from them, not to ask and not to send them anything. And so, we’re in a position where the only data we have is the data which arrives in real-time, so that will mean real-time responses. That can be really challenging to plan for.”
Davidson is proud of his staff’s response to changing government and health official directives and thanks students and families for their understanding. He intends to keep parents and guardians updated about news on staff absences, which is one of the main intentions behind Sunday’s email.
“We want to make sure we communicate to our families what it is we’re doing in order to meet their children’s needs; to protect their safety, to ensure that learning continues,” he said. “We also need them to be aware of the challenges we’re currently facing and the challenges we anticipate we’ll face so that they can ready themselves for potential outcomes.”