CALGARY -- Most Alberta students in Grades 7 to 12 will not be returning to the classroom until the new year, but the province has updated its latest restrictions to allow special education classes to continue.

In-person classes for junior and senior high students ended on Nov. 30, as part of the new provincial plan in light of spiking cases of COVID-19, which initially did not make exceptions for special needs students.

“I was very stressed out,” said Krystal Peluso whose 14-year-old daughter, Jade McGarrigle, has autism.

“Immediately I thought, wait a minute, this impacts us differently, I think the whole special needs community feels the same way.”

She was pleased to see the policy was updated and Jade’s eighth grade special education classes were not disrupted.

“Extraordinarily grateful,” said Peluso, explaining that her daughter loves school and can’t learn the same skills online.

“The class that she’s in is very life-skills based so those kind of environments help her grow everyday," she said.

Both Calgary Catholic School District (CSSD) and the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) say the students that transitioned to online learning will have a much different experience than they did in the spring when schools abruptly closed.

The changes cut down on the screen time students faced for their learning at the onset of the pandemic

“Back then it was five hours a day for elementary, 10 hours a day for junior high and three hours per diploma high school course,” said CSSD Supt. Bryan Szumlas.

Now teachers will be in classrooms using school resources to help teach online, and students will continue learning in the same schedule they would have in-class.

“They may have a lesson with the teacher for the first 15 minutes or so and for the remainder of the class the teacher needs to be accessible for them but the student would be working on their assignment," said Szumlas.

CBE said it is also maintaining school schedules for students who have moved online. 

The board is sticking to its policy preventing students from switching to online learning for the rest of the 2020/21 school year.

“Given the evolving situation with COVID-19, we did consider whether to permit movement from in-person classes into Hub online learning for the second semester,” read a statement from CBE.

“However, in order to ensure continuity of learning and minimize disruption to in-person classes resulting from the movement of staff from in-person classes to Hub, we are not able to accommodate new requests for Hub online learning in the new year.”

CBE policy does allow the opposite movement however. Hub online students can choose to instead join in-person classes on Feb. 1, 2021 by outlining their decision in early January.

Diploma exams will be optional for all CBE and CSSD students.

Students in Grades K-6 will continue learning in school until the scheduled start of the holiday break on Dec. 18. 

Then all Alberta students will have an extra week away from school, with in-class learning scheduled to resume for all grades on Jan. 11.

In the meantime, CSSD said there are still opportunities for students to get extra support online or in-person with safety measures in place.

“Our schools are still open,” said Szumlas.

“We have counselling support in our buildings to help students who may be struggling.”