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UCP rush to reopen Alberta schools despite summer surge in COVID-19 cases

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Premier Jason Kenney and  Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange during a news conference on May 28, 2020. Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

Alberta has been relatively lucky up to now with the impact of the global coronavirus epidemic on its population.

Premier Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party government are ready to bet your life that good luck will continue.

Desperate to relaunch the economy but ideologically opposed to spending much money on government services to make the reopening safe, the premier and his party are determined to send three quarters of a million children and youths back to school in September -- never mind the troubling midsummer surge in COVID-19 cases hitting the province right now.

Don't worry about it, Kenney implied during Tuesday's daily COVID-19 briefing, at which he trotted out Education Minister Adriana LaGrange to announce the school reopening plan, which sounded pretty much like any other year's back-to-school plan.

"The overwhelming evidence is that schools can be operated safely with little health risk for children and teachers and low risk of causing serious outbreaks in the communities that surround them," the premier told the credulous media on the phone lines, pointing to studies this spring from several European countries.

Europe isn't Alberta, of course, and for some reason Kenney didn't mention the large South Korean study cited by The New York Times on July 18 that concluded "children younger than 10 transmit to others much less often than adults do, but the risk is not zero. And those between the ages of 10 and 19 can spread the virus at least as well as adults do."

In other words, the Times cautioned, "the findings suggest that as schools reopen, communities will see clusters of infection take root that include children of all ages."

So despite the premier's confidence, the auguries are not auspicious for a reopening in which school operations will be "nearly normal" and the government isn't prepared to spend the money needed to ensure physical distancing, more aggressive cleaning or even to provide masks, let alone require students to wear them.

Nor have Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw's reassurances been particularly reassuring lately.

"We heard from Albertans that they didn't need formal restrictions to protect each other," she tweeted yesterday. "Now is the time to show that is correct."

"The best way to have safe & healthy schools this fall is to start the school year with a low count of cases," she continued. "New measures will require students & staff to monitor symptoms daily & stay home if they're feeling sick. Students must wash or sanitize their hands before & after entering school & classrooms."

Seriously? Remember, we're talking about children. You'd almost think the good doctor had been cooped up with the UCP's operatives so long she's come down with a case of Stockholm syndrome!

As former Alberta NDP leader Brian Mason responded to Hinshaw's commentary, saying that you've heard from Albertans is a political statement, something he knows a thing or two about, not a medical observation.

"You've now sanctioned the premature opening of packing plants, bars, and now schools," Mason said. "Cases are rising again. It appears you are taking orders from Kenny (sic), NOT insisting on the best practices to control the spread."

When Alberta Teachers Association president Jason Schilling weighed in, he observed "government needs to set and fund clear and specific mandates for risk mitigation."

"Teachers just want the government to give us a fighting chance to make this work," he said plaintively. "We believe that with clear, supported measures schools could be a safe space for learning -- but outstanding concerns need to be addressed before that can happen."

Well, we'll have a chance to see a dress rehearsal of how this might work when the Kenney government calls about 10,000 nervous civil servants back to their offices, many of them as soon as next Monday.

They are grown-ups, after all, capable of understanding the risks and governing themselves accordingly. And their numbers are much smaller. If that small-scale dress rehearsal for September results in another spike in COVID-19 cases, it doesn't bode well for Alberta's fall and winter.

Which brings us to the question of what parents will do this September, and how the Kenney government will respond.

Will significant numbers of parents who have the means to make the choice keep their kids home and reluctantly home school them until there's a vaccine?

Consider this, when schools remained open in Chicago during the 1918 influenza epidemic, absentee rates were 30 per cent by mid-October, and had hit 50 per cent by the end of that month. Of course, in those days, more households had only one breadwinner.

In Ontario, schools also opened that year in September, but some had to be closed again for periods of one week to three months in response to the epidemic, the report of the Ontario minister of education for 1918 noted. (In addition to the epidemic, a world war and the "call of Cupid" also hindered adequate staffing of the province's schools that year, the minister complained.)

If enough Alberta parents in 2020 keep their kids home too, will the UCP cut funding to schools with lower than expected enrolment? School funding is no longer adjusted based on the actual headcount, but it's hard to imagine this government in particular wouldn't be tempted to cut anyway.

And would that funding be restored when students start showing up again after their parents burn out or a vaccine becomes available?

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr​

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