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Questions remain on how to teach during a pandemic

St. Albert teachers come to grips with COVID-19
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Elmer S. Gish teacher Melissa Zawaduk has been preparing for her students return to school this fall. In addition to following provincial and school board health directives, she has been brainstorming ways to adapt her classroom to the realities of teaching during a pandemic. CHRIS COLBOURNE/St. Albert Gazette

St. Albert teachers are scratching their heads as they try to figure out how to reopen their schools during a pandemic.

The province threw St. Albert schools a curveball on Aug. 4 when it announced all staff and Grade 4 to 12 students would be required to wear masks in school whenever physical distancing could not be maintained. It had previously said masks would be optional in school.

The province also said it would be providing every teacher with a face shield, every school with two contactless thermometers, and every student and staffer with two free reusable masks. It would also distribute some 466,000 L of hand sanitizer between schools.

The St. Albert and Sturgeon school boards have updated their school reopening plans to reflect this mask requirement and are encouraging all students to wear masks.

“Mask use will be mandatory in common areas and any time physical distance of two metres is not possible,” said Greater St. Albert Catholic superintendent Clint Moroziuk, referring to staff and Grade 4 to 12 students.

Questions remain

While many Alberta teachers welcomed this mask requirement, Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling said some questioned how it would work in practise.

“How do we social-distance in our classrooms when our classrooms are bursting at the seams in some areas?”

Moroziuk acknowledged staff and students would effectively have to wear masks at all times in school due to the close confines of most classrooms. His board would work with students who could not wear masks for medical/psychological reasons.

Other teachers were concerned that the province was not providing the cash needed for masks and sanitization supplies, Schilling said.

“We have a lot of pandemic left to get through,” he noted, and students will need more than just those two free masks before the school year is done.

Moroziuk said GSACRD has enough money to cover the cost of cleaning and safety equipment for now, but that the full costs would depend on how many students opt for in-person instruction. St. Albert Public, GSACRD and Sturgeon Public all plan to offer online instruction for students this fall, with St. Albert Public and Catholic letting students switch between in-person and virtual classes each quarter.

Vital Grandin teacher Rachel Virani said she is stumped on how to teach her students while masked, as many of them have speech difficulties.

“If I’m required to wear a mask all day, I can’t help them with their speech delays. They can’t see where my tongue touches on my teeth or how my lips move.”

Virani said she looked into masks with transparent plastic windows in them, but found they weren’t breathable and were incompatible with her asthma. She hopes schools would allow her to use a Plexiglas barrier similar to the ones now used in many stores for up-close teaching. She is also thinking about what toys and costumes she could offer, as all of them would have to be disinfected between uses.

Elmer S. Gish teacher Melissa Zawaduk said she is sewing a lot of reusable masks for herself and her kids in preparation for back to school, and has rearranged the class library so kids wouldn’t have to rummage in a bin for books. Still up in the air are her school clubs: Lego Club is impossible due to the shared handling of the bricks, but Coding Club might still be feasible. (St. Albert Public has said that all school clubs and extra-curricular activities would be on hold when school resumes.)

Morinville Community High School teacher Neil Korotash said his classroom is big enough that he might be able to teach without a mask; otherwise, he’d just speak louder.

“One of the biggest changes is we’re going to have longer classes,” he said – a consequence of the Catholic and St. Albert Public boards’ switch to a four-term system for high schools.

While this could mean students wearing masks for many hours, it could also give teachers a chance to do more in-depth labs or field studies, Korotash said. He would have to rethink how he runs guest lectures, though – school visitors are all but banned under the St. Albert Public, Sturgeon School and GSACRD school reopening plans.

While Zawaduk and Korotash said they are confident they could return to class in safety, Virani said she is more skeptical and would prefer to see more online learning for smaller class cohorts.

“It’s going to be a real learning curve for us,” Virani said.

Watch the St. Albert Public, Sturgeon Public, and St. Albert Catholic websites for the latest on their reopening plans.

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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