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Alberta student says she and others are dreading return to online learning

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EDMONTON — Seventeen-year-old Amara Mogos is dreading the next two weeks.

The Grade 12 student says going back and forth between online learning and regular school has been draining for her and many of her classmates.

Mogos is one of thousands of junior high and high school students in Edmonton who will return to online learning Thursday as COVID-19 cases and other variants of the virus spread in the region.

"It's chaos," said Mogos, who attends W.P. Wagner School. "I'm not happy with it. Having to look at a camera all day, every day for a lesson is very dreadful."

Mogos said spending six hours a day in front of a camera feels like prison and her mental health, along with many of her classmates, is suffering because of it. 

Alberta Health Services' website says there are more than 200 schools in the province dealing with an outbreak. School boards in Calgary and Fort McMurray have already moved all students in grades 7 to 12 to at-home learning for the next few weeks.

Trisha Estabrooks, board chairwoman of Edmonton Public Schools, said rising cases and a lack of teachers forced her division and Edmonton Catholic Schools to make a joint request to the province to shift to online learning.

"We're on a COVID coaster," said Estabrooks.

"So many families have experienced having to have their children home for two-week periods and then they're back in school and then they're pulled out of school again. My hope with this two-week circuit breaker is that we don't get back on this COVID coaster."

Estabrooks said as of Wednesday, about 400 teachers and staff working with the division were in a "quarantine situation."

The Catholic school board in Edmonton said it is dealing with the same challenges.

"Our Division has seen a significant number of students and staff in isolation in those grades, a shortage of teaching staff available to deliver in-person learning, and a substantial rise in COVID-19 cases in the community," Sandra Palazzo, board chairwoman of Edmonton Catholic Schools said in a statement on Tuesday.

Estabrooks said the province could be doing more to support schools and teachers.

"One area where the province could show leadership, that could have a real impact on the case numbers that we're seeing in our schools, is making it a priority for teachers and all school-based staff to be vaccinated," she said.

"I don't understand why this province hasn't stepped up and supported all school-based staff to be prioritized for the vaccine. That to me is a simple thing that could be done, and it's not too late to do so."

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange stressed the decision to move to at-home learning was made by the Edmonton public and Catholic school boards. 

"I understand this is very difficult news for many students, parents, and teachers, as in-classroom learning has significant benefits," LaGrange told a news conference. 

“However, due to the operational concerns, this temporary shift is necessary to ensure that learning can continue.” 

NDP health critic Sarah Hoffman said LaGrange’s failure to find more space, hire more staff and lay off 20,000 support staff, substitute teachers, and teaching aides last spring contributed to the schools’ ongoing struggle with the pandemic. 

LaGrange dismissed the accusation. 

“The short-term transition that occurred last spring, when every school went to online learning, was very short-term,” she said. 

“Full funding was restored to school divisions in early July, and so they had access to their full funding at that time and made decisions that benefited their school division.” 

As for Mogos, she said she is not looking forward to Thursday when she has to wake up and sit at her desk next to her bed for the next two weeks to do her school work.

"School's not fun as it used to be. Teachers are trying their best, but there's a lot of miscommunications going on," she said.

"There's a lot of students that are falling through the cracks. I am lucky but there are classmates who don't have a good life at home. None of us feel like we're being heard at all."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 21, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press