CALGARY -- K-12 students in Alberta will return to classrooms this fall, Premier Jason Kenney announced Tuesday.

There will be health measures in place, with students being grouped into cohorts to limit contact and possible spread of COVID-19, but there will not be limits on class sizes.

I’m proud of our comprehensive plan that supports the safe return to daily in-school learning," said Kenney. "The return of more than 750,000 students to near-normal learning in the new school year is indicative of Alberta’s continued recovery as we work to relaunch our economy and return to our regular everyday lives.”

Health measures will include the cleaning of high-touch surfaces, having hand sanitizer at entrances to schools and classrooms and grouping students in cohorts. Distancing will also be done, which could  include staggering start times for classes, recesses and lunches. Some schools are also replacing water fountains with water bottle filling stations.

In addition, students, staff, parents and visitors will be expected to use a self-screening questionnaire daily to determine whether they can enter the school.

Parents won't be forced to send their kids to school if they don't feel it is safe, said Education Minister Adriana LaGrange.

"We feel confident we have a great plan in place to welcome our students back safely," she said. "That being said, if parents still don't feel comfortable, then they need to reach out to their school divisions, their local schools and have the conversation as to how they can facilitate the education for their students."

Kelly Mandryk has two children going into Grade 6 and Grade 8 and says it will be a difficult decision whether to send them to classes in the fall.

"I have Type 1 diabetes, so I am in one of the risk categories for having severe outcomes for COVID-19," she said. "So having two school populations as well as public transit for my older son is a real concern for me.

"I am going to have to really give this some thought. I’m sure as every other parent in Alberta is, we’re excited for them to go back, because it has been a long haul for them being home, but I just don’t see how they can have the kind of physical distancing that we need to to keep them safe.”

The Alberta Teachers Association is also questioning how schools will keep students safe and whether school boards have the necessary funds to implement required changes. 

"With the need for increased cleaning and disinfecting there will definitely be a huge financial hit to school boards to implement all of these safety protocols," said Bob Cocking, president of Calgary Public Teachers division of ATA, prior to the announcement.

"As well, there is the possible increase for the need of relief staff (substitutes) for any staff that are sick or symptomatic. All these additional costs are to be absorbed by school boards which will be in the millions, yet the government was quite willing to help the rest of the province in dealing with the COVID-19 issues.

"We already know that funding has not kept up with enrolment growth and that our class sizes will continue to grow. Therefore, teachers have had many questions about how they are to set up their classrooms to accommodate the (two metre) distancing ... and for many, that is an impossible task."

Additional concerns remain on how students, especially those still developing at younger ages, could properly physical distance.

One reason for the decision, said Kenney, was because of the success seen by the Calgary Catholic School Division, which reopened in-person classes for summer schools and no outbreaks were reported.

But those classes were capped, said NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley.

“It’s not about stay open versus stay closed, it’s about open versus open safely,” Notley said in a statement. “Jason Kenney has chosen just ‘open’.”

Notley called Tuesday's announcement by Kenney, "disingenuous."

“Calgary Catholic capped their summer school classes at 14 students. Denmark capped theirs at 12, and the Netherlands installed plexiglass around students’ desks," she said.

"Kenney and LaGrange have not capped class sizes or provided new resources for additional staffing or physical separation.”

A return to in-class learning was one of three potential scenarios LaGrange released earlier this summer. The other two scenarios involved partially reopening schools or having students continue to learn remotely from home. 

Should an outbreak of COVID-19 occur, LaGrange said the affected school could then move to partial in-class learning or at-home learning. 

"A public heath team will investigate to determine when symptoms developed and we'll support the school to minmimize the transmission," she said.

"Parents will be notified if a case of COVID-19 is confirmed in their school and public health officials will contact those who were in close contact with that person."

Other provinces are examining a similar approach, including Ontario which has asked school boards to prepare three different scenarios: a return to a normal school year, online learning only and a hybrid model with limited days attendance supported by an online component.

With files from CTV Calgary's Mark Villani and Bill Macfarlane


The original version of this story indicated Bob Cocking was ATA president. Cocking is the president of Calgary Public Teachers within ATA Local 38.