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Province steps in to help school authorities and students

Education minister Adriana LaGrange announced Oct. 27 that the weight of high school diploma exams will be decreased this year and Alberta school authorities will receive funding to support students in Grades 2 and 3 who have experienced learning disruptions in developing literacy and numeracy skills due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Education minister Adriana LaGrange announced Oct. 27 that the weight of high school diploma exams will be decreased this year and Alberta school authorities can now receive the funding that was announced back in May to support students in Grades 2 and 3 who have experienced learning disruptions in developing literacy and numeracy skills due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The province is pledging $45 million toward targeting programming to address identified learning gaps in students in Grades 1 to 3. The new funding will be broken up per student, LaGrange said, with $490 toward literacy or numeracy support or $980 per student for those that qualify for both.

"School authorities completed literacy and numeracy assessments earlier this school year and will be using this funding to offer focused programming that will go above and beyond classroom learning," LaGrange said in the press conference.

New programming could include shifting students to learning in smaller groups or one-on-one, hiring additional staff, increasing parent communication and involvement in programming and ensuring staff have the tools they need to implement programs, among other things.

"This funding will allow schools to increase supports to improve writing, reading and numeracy skills for younger students who have fallen behind during the pandemic," said LaGrange.

Schools boards, she added, will be given the flexibility to use the funding according to their own unique needs.

Helmut Kaiser, director of learning services for the Calgary Catholic School District, which oversees St. Timothy's and Holy Spirit Catholic School in Cochrane, said the district is "excited and pleased" by the announcement of added support.

"We have found, especially with younger students, the disruptions of learning between being in class and going online and coming back to class again - it has been much more disruptive to division one students, that's Grades 1, 2 and 3," he said. "So we're going to be putting a plan in place to support those kids with catching up with their foundational numeracy and literacy skills."

Kaiser said he feels the province moved as quickly as it could have on this front with the initiative rolling out at the beginning of the current school year. The Calgary Catholic School District will primarily be using the funding to employ extra teachers in division one classrooms to provide those students with the added attention their learning requires at this time, Kaiser added.

"Our hope is that in the next few weeks here, you will see those additional teachers in the classrooms to support kids with their learning losses."

In a statement, Rocky View Schools shared that the school board is "appreciative of the provincial government’s recognition that additional funding is needed to support our students as the pandemic continues to be disruptive to learning. Planning is underway to determine how best to allocate these funds to applicable grades in the division."

Sheridan Taylor has two children at Elizabeth Barrett Elementary School in pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten, said although current funding does not apply to his kids, he believes it cannot hurt those that are eligible for it. 

According to assessments, approximately 38,000 students will receive literacy programming and approximately 25,000 will receive numeracy programming, LaGrange said. The focus will be on Grades 2 and 3 this fall, with students in Grade 1 to be assessed in February of next year.

LaGrange said the provincial government worked with the College of Alberta School Superintendents and other education groups that highlighted learning disruptions are more detrimental to young students than to older students who have already developed a foundation of literacy and numeracy skills.

"It is crucial to address learning challenges in the early years of a student's development," she said. "That's why I'm so pleased that we are able to provide these supports at this time in the pandemic and as the pandemic continues to evolve."

Diploma exams for high school students will also be weighted at 10 per cent of their total grade this year, instead of the usual 30 per cent, according to LaGrange, who said she heard from students and members of her ministry's youth advisory council over their concerns of stress and anxiety striving for academic achievement during a pandemic.

"The experience of writing a diploma exam or other high-level exam is an experience which current Grade 12 students may not have had during their high school tenure," LaGrange said. "Since March of their Grade 10 year, many have transitioned back and forth between online and in-person learning. Some may not have written an exam at all."

By lowering the grade weight of the diploma exam, LaGrange said high school students should hopefully experience less stress while still being afforded the opportunity to have a crucial exam writing experience if they choose to pursue post-secondary.

In addition to the new funding and diploma exam adjustments, LaGrange said the province is also offering rapid tests to Kindergarten to Grade 6 schools across the province that are under outbreak status.

"If student or staff choose to take part, they will get 10 rapid tests to take home and will be required to test twice weekly for five weeks," LaGrange said. 

The program starts immediately at no cost to schools, she added. It is intended as a screening tool for individuals who are not experiencing COVID symptoms to assist with slowing the spread of the virus in areas with higher case rates.

Kaiser said that Calgary Catholic School District will make rapid tests available for families in schools with reported outbreaks. 

An instructional video and facts sheet have been posted, along with other COVID-19 resources, on alberta.ca/COVID-19 to help parents and guardians administer rapid tests which, LaGrange said, provide results within 20 minutes.