A month into the school year in Alberta, cases of COVID-19 have been reported in 160 schools, 50 of which are considered outbreaks. The second wave of COVID-19 is in full swing, as the province now has its highest seven-day average rate of new COVID-19 cases since May 5. Despite the numbers, the government is in denial. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange defended the reopening, saying, “the plan is working.” That could only be true if “the plan” is dislocation, chaos, and the spread of COVID-19.
The situation in schools is one of utter disarray. In the first full week of instruction, 100 grade ten students at Ross Sheppard high school were sent home and told to isolate for two weeks. School staff across the province report being pushed to breaking point. One teacher in Calgary said of her work conditions, “I am cannon fodder. I’m being thrown to the wolves.” A poll conducted by the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) of 1,600 teachers showed that 94 percent felt “extreme and unsustainable levels” of fatigue. All this, and September isn’t even over.
The fact that the United Conservative Party (UCP) school reopening plan has been a complete disaster is no surprise. Alberta has had the highest rate of COVID-19 cases per capita of all provinces for much of the pandemic, and as the summer came to an end case numbers continued to increase. Yet the UCP did next to nothing to prepare for COVID-19 in schools. In fact, they have been busy attacking public education since they took office. Last October the UCP froze spending on schools while enrollment grew, leaving school boards with less money and more students. For example, the Calgary Board of Education, which is responsible for more than 125,000 students, has lost $701 per student in the past two years. To push the knife in further, in March when the pandemic was near its peak, the UCP effectively laid off 26,000 educational assistants, the largest layoff by a single employer in Canadian history. All these changes left schools short-staffed, broke, and woefully unprepared to deal with an in-person return to school.
One measure that would help curb the spread of COVID-19 is reduced class sizes. One study out of Ontario suggests that larger classes could have an exponential effect on virus transmission, resulting in five times more COVID-19 infections every time the population of the class doubles from eight, to 15, to 30. When prodded about this, Jason Kenney dismissed the idea as “unrealistic” and added, “It’s always been clear that there’d be some outbreaks.” Smaller classes are not, and have never been on the UCP’s radar. One of their first attacks against education was to cancel a grant program aimed at reducing class sizes. They coupled this with ending the requirement that school boards report on class sizes. At the end of the day smaller classes mean hiring more teachers, hiring more support staff, and building more schools, all of which comes with a price tag. The UCP is not interested in spending money on public education. They would rather put the funds aside to pay for corporate tax cuts and oil baron bailouts. As a result, schools are reopening with larger classes. For example, Edmonton Public Schools have cut 178 full-time teachers and 434 support staff so far this year.
Kenney has recently said, “We want to do everything we possibly can to avoid jerking around people, indiscriminately shutting down their businesses, their jobs and their livelihoods,” and yet that’s exactly what’s happening with the UCP’s half-baked reopening scheme. Countless school days are being lost as students and staff need to self-isolate. Parents are then forced to stay home or scramble to make plans for their kids. Demand for substitute teachers has increased by 20 percent in Calgary public schools. What is this if not “ jerking around people.” The reason the UCP opened schools as hastily as they did was so that parents could go back to work and businesses could carry on smoothly without further disruption. For the UCP, death and disruption in schools is not only acceptable, it’s inevitable. But disruptions to profit-making are intolerable. Kenney himself admitted that there is no plan for health restrictions following a surge in cases, saying, “Alberta’s belief was that we’re not going to micromanage our way out of this.”
Micromanaging is exactly what the UCP is guilty of, but only when it comes to gutting public services, labor laws, and democratic rights. In addition to all the cuts outlined above, the UCP has cut compensation for doctors during the pandemic. They have essentially outlawed any form of protest, and they have more plans for brutal austerity and privatizations on the way. Jason Kenney’s new catchphrase is that the UCP is “not just saving lives, but livelihoods.” It is true to say that the UCP are focused on preserving livelihoods. But exactly whose livelihoods are they talking about? Not those who rely on AISH, a program for the disabled. The UCP is looking to micromanage the criteria to kick people off the program. Meanwhile the oil barons and business owners now enjoy the lowest corporate tax rate in the country. Those are the livelihoods the UCP is concerned about.
The way that the UCP has reopened schools is a form of high-stakes gambling. They are wagering the lives of students, teachers, and everyone around them for corporate profits. Jason Kenney has already said he has no plans to reinstate public health orders as outbreaks get worse. Not only that, but Alberta will scale back asymptomatic COVID-19 testing, stacking the odds in favor of the virus. The UCP doesn’t care how many people have to die, or deal with the long term problems that come with COVID-19, as long as businesses can keep running. This high-stakes gambling has characterized the UCP regime. In addition to reopening schools, they’ve bet $7.5 billion that the Keystone XL pipeline will be built, and allowed the Alberta Investment Management Corporation to lose $4 billion of pension money in risky investment trading schemes. They should not be allowed to gamble with our future any longer.
There is a way to beat back the UCP’s attacks, and it has been demonstrated by teachers in New York, Chicago, and Detroit. Because teachers did not feel safe in these cities, they threatened strike action. Within hours important concessions were won, including class size limits. In Arizona, teachers were able to prevent a haphazard reopening of schools by organizing a “sick-out”. In late August, teachers in the Horizon School Division requested a strike vote. The ATA should take this responsibility on and hold a province-wide strike vote. Teachers are dealing with an incredible burden of stress and fatigue, and they have gone without raises for six of the last seven years. The UCP government is losing support every day because of their blatant disregard for everyone who isn’t an oil baron. One recent poll has them tied with the NDP, who they crushed in the polls last year 54.9 to 32.7 percent. A movement of teachers against the UCP and their cuts would have a very wide base of support: parents, educational assistants, school staff, other public sector workers. The next step is to organize this resistance.