September 1, 2020 - No. 57

Discussion in Alberta on What Constitutes Safe Schools
and the Right to Education

Widescale Opposition to Alberta Government's Plan for Business as Usual

Actions demanding the Alberta government take action to ensure a safe return to school took place in cities and towns across Alberta on August 21, 2020. Photo above from Sherwood Park.

New Curriculum Must Serve the People of Alberta - Dougal MacDonald

Concerns in Quebec About a Safe Back-to-School Environment
• A Proactive Approach Is Required  - Pierre Soublière

British Students Take a Stand for Their Right to Education
Government Forced to Back Down from Anti-Human Algorithm to Assign
Final Grades

Callous and Dangerous Stand of the British Government on School Reopenings Is Unacceptable and Indefensible - Workers' Weekly

Discussion in Alberta on What Constitutes Safe Schools
and the Right to Education

Widescale Opposition to Alberta Government's
Plan for Business as Usual

Since the Alberta government announced its reckless plan for reopening schools in a "near-normal" scenario without corresponding provisions to ensure student safety, opposition is developing all over Alberta. Parent groups, students, teachers, education workers and concerned citizens are all in motion, speaking in their own name in defence of the right to a safe education. Groups such as Support Our Students, the RAD Educators Network and physicians' group AlbertaDocs4Patients are speaking out, as is the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA). Students returned to classes this week. On August 29 Alberta recorded 184 new cases, the highest number for a single day since April 30. 

On August 21, pickets were held in front of the constituency offices of about 27 of the 63 United Conservative Party (UCP) MLAs, to demand a safe re-entry for schools in September. Pickets took place from Fort McMurray in the north to Lethbridge in the South. They show a formidable force organized to demand increased funding for education in order to have wider safety supports for schools. The rallies showed the determination of frontline educators and workers, parents, students and many community members to make sure there is a safe school re-entry for the sake of all affected. Signs and messages chalked on sidewalks reflect deep concern that the government's plan to reopen schools without social distancing and other necessary measures at a time when community transmission of COVID-19 is not under control will lead to increased transmission.

A teacher in the riding of Calgary Bow stated; "We really feel we are not being supported to do the best job we can for our students."

Calgary parent Kyla Stack picketing in front of Minister of Health Tyler Shandro's office said, "Last year my youngest daughter's class had 38 students over the course of the year. There was no room for the students to spread out."

Calgary high school teacher Stephen Yanover said, "It is anger. It is frustratation. It is disgust. It's just that they are doing nothing. They are not listening to anyone."

A student attending the rally in front of Premier Jason Kenney's constituency office stated, "It's really not fair how students have to choose between getting sick, not being healthy and ruining their education."

Jason Schilling, President of the ATA, met with Education Minister Adriana LaGrange on August 19 to discuss the ATA's concerns with the lack of supports for a safe re-entry, but nothing changed as a result. He also added that he believes those on the front line of this re-entry plan, support staff, teachers and principals "should have their concerns heard because at the end of the day they are the ones that have to deal directly with students and parents."

Edmonton Southwest, August 21, 2020.

The ATA is presenting a seven-point plan which includes the following:

- A working group that includes public health, teachers, trustees and superintendents to develop common standards;
- A clear plan for transitioning schools from full-time learning to part-time or online learning as required;
- Increased physical distancing through reduced class sizes;
- Funding for enhanced staff, protective equipment and HVAC improvements;
- Better plans for screening and testing of students and staff; and
- Resources and supports to ensure the safety and availability of substitute teachers.

Substitute teachers are particularly vulnerable as they travel to multiple school sites. Teachers in Alberta are not covered by the Workers’ Compensation Board, and substitute teachers lack any benefits whatsoever to cover an extended illness or complications from COVID-19.

How to reopen schools in a manner which guarantees the right to education and ensures the safety of students, teachers, education workers and the community at large is a serious question which requires broad public discussion and involvement of the people. The voices of those directly involved in the schools must be heard and a process must be established which instills confidence in the education system. Exceptional circumstances require that standards and protocols be upheld and used to find a way forward. 

Instead, under the guise of local autonomy in decision-making, the Alberta government is failing to uphold the responsibility of the state to care for the health and safety of all. The UCP response is that parents have a "choice" as to whether to send their children to school or not, and must weigh the risks and benefits and decide for themselves. Such actions can only further weaken the public education system, which is precisely what the UPC wants. 

Into this void, people are stepping up and must continue to step up and take social responsibility. Keeping up this organizing, speaking out with our demands for increased funding and safety for all is crucial.


Calgary Fish Creek; Calgary Glenmore

Calgary, Klein; Calgary Northeast


Edmonton, Southwest

Spruce Grove; Sherwood Park

Fort Saskatchewan

Fort McMurray

Grand Prairie

(With files from CBC, CTV, Global, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Lethbridge News, Alberta Teachers' Association. Photos: S. Loeser, YouSeePeeYYC, Teacher Alberta, K. Hertlein, T. Was, J. Burgess, D. Gustabson, N. Pike, J. Comartin, Mister DW, U. Faye, K. Campbell, D. Hart, YQL Solidarity, K. Shackleton.)

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New Curriculum Must Serve the People of Alberta

Alberta's United Conservative Party (UCP) government recently released the names of eight members of its curriculum review advisory panel. This new advisory committee is not to be confused with the still-existing 12-member curriculum review committee formed in August 2019. The latter is chaired by the so-called public education reform representative for the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies, a reactionary think tank taken over in 2019 by the corporate-funded neo-liberal propaganda outlet, the Fraser Institute. In a rambling and somewhat incoherent speech on August 5, the committee chair reported that due to COVID-19 the Alberta review committee essentially had nothing to report, however he did extol used car sales as a promising future career for students.

The Alberta curriculum reform is definitely an urgent need, with a number of curricula now well beyond their best-before date. The Alberta elementary science curriculum, for example, is 24 years old and the elementary art curriculum is 35 years old. These and other curricula definitely need to be modernized so that students can make sense of today's world. This ossified state of educational affairs is the result of 44 years of Conservative governments which have continuously starved education of needed funds in order to subsidize the mostly foreign-owned energy companies which continue to dominate Alberta's economics, politics, and culture.

The UCP claim that both their curriculum review committee and their new advisory panel are "unbiased," which is quite ludicrous. The 12-member review committee includes no Alberta teachers. However, it does include a former Alberta deputy minister from the Getty and Klein conservative governments, the co-founder of the "free enterprise" Petrarch Institute, and an American educator who champions private schools. The bias of the eight-member advisory committee is mainly shown by who is absent. Again, no members of that committee are elementary school teachers or staff. None are women, who make up 71 per cent of school professionals in Alberta. None of the advisory committee members are Indigenous. And several members are closely connected with the UCP or the ideology driving that party.

C.P. (Chris) Champion, for example, is the UCP's social studies advisor on the eight-member committee. He worked for the federal Opposition Conservatives, Alberta premier Jason Kenney's former party, for six years, serving as an advisor to Kenney himself from 2007 to 2015. Champion founded the right-wing Dorchester Review in 2011 which he still edits, which claims to "challenge the boring and politically-correct vision of history often found in the media and in academe." An authorless article from the first issue, republished online this year, critiques history curriculum introduced by "left" governments. It derides an Australian history curriculum as "light on facts and heavy with guilt about Aboriginals and immigrants." The piece also states that "in Canada the preoccupation with victimhood has mostly centred on Japanese Canadians and residential school survivors." Champion has been published in the Journal of Intelligence and National Security and is a member of the Canadian Military Intelligence Association.

Several UCP advisory picks are far removed from their designated area of expertise. The advisor for arts and literature is a lawyer who just happens to sit on a theatre company's board of directors, obviously to give legal advice. The advisor for science is an associate professor of computer science. The problem with the latter selection is that there isn't any science in computing science. A true science such as physics or chemistry or biology studies and explains some aspect of physical reality. It is not focussed on how to build things; that is the domain of engineering. What is mislabeled as computer science might more aptly be called "computology" the study of computational processes and how they can be realized. The appointment of a non-scientist to advise about science is definitely a problem, especially when scientific inquiry, the main approach to teaching school science, is based on how actual scientists carry out their investigations.

The context for the UCP's proliferation of panels was the three-year process of curriculum reform initiated by the previous NDP government, which the UCP opposed from the beginning as having a "left-wing bias." Interestingly, the Minister of Education has, when interviewed, been unable to give a single concrete example of the alleged bias. Premier Kenney has also attacked the reform process under the previous government as both "biased" and "secretive," even though it gathered input from thousands of teachers and the proposed changes were published for all to see online.

Kenney has also repeatedly stated that the new curriculum should focus on "foundational competencies," a phrase from the world of job training which hearkens back to the long-discredited back-to-basics movement of the Thatcher-Reagan era, however he has never clarified what those competencies actually are. Kenney's equation of education with job training should raise a red flag. Training implies a one-way transmission of procedural knowledge where the learner passively absorbs what they are told rather than participating in the construction of a broad, elaborated understanding. Critical and creative thinking are ignored. Advocating fundamental competencies as the main goal of school education sounds suspiciously like an attempt to promote indoctrinating students rather than teaching them.

The real question amid all this political infighting is who should the new curriculum serve? Based on the composition of their committees, the UCP government obviously thinks it should reflect their neo-liberal ideology which serve the interests of the Alberta energy industry. In contrast, the people of Alberta think the curriculum should serve the people's interests, that is, it should include what will help create a society which is humanized in all aspects and where the people can participate in making the decisions that affect their lives, including the decisions as to what the curriculum should be.

One thing is very clear. If existing curricula do not adjust to changes and the needs of the people, education will become irrelevant and obsolete, thereby putting future generations at risk. But education is a right which cannot be taken away. That is why it is necessary to constantly question how well the current curriculum is responding to the needs of the people and to take the necessary steps to continuously improve it in the people's interests. The fight for a modern curriculum and a modern education system must be part and parcel of the fight for a new society that must be based on the guarantee of rights for all.

(Photos: WF, M. Sardinha)

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Concerns in Quebec About a Safe Back-to-School Environment 

A Proactive Approach Is Required 

As of August 31, Quebec students are back in schools from the kindergarten to high school levels. Elementary and high school teachers have been back at school since August 24, while students began to progressively return later that same week, some for only a couple of hours to pick up their books and others for half a day, with some attending classes. The full reopening of schools began on Monday, August 31. It was during the progressive return period that reports emerged that a number of teachers had tested positive for COVID-19. It has not been revealed when the teachers were tested, nor when the results came in. The cases occurred in elementary and high schools in the eastern part of Montreal and in the Laurentides region.

At the high school in the Laurentides region, four teachers have now tested positive. Close to 20 other teachers who were in close contact with them were sent home for preventive quarantine. They are expected back at school on September 10. Students in grades 10 and 11 who had been in contact with these teachers were also sent home on August 28 and were back at school on August 31.

In light of this, the Ministry of Education's decision that there should be neither masks nor physical distancing in classes is considered most inappropriate by many teachers, education workers and parents. The Ministry suggests that those who want to wear a mask can do so which is nonsensical and reduces the discussion and guidelines of what measures are appropriate to take to nonsense as well because the efficacy of wearing a mask is directly proportional to the number of people who wear them. At a demonstration in Montreal on August 23, parents, teachers and students raised that they did not understand why the student-teacher ratio has remained the same while physical distancing is required in all enclosed public places. Indeed, class sizes are undoubtedly in stark contradiction to the requirement for physical distancing, making the reopening anything but "cautious."

Experience with such exceptional circumstances tells us that we must err on the side of caution. To do that, a proactive approach is needed, one which takes into account the reality that the pandemic has not been eradicated and that there is always the possibility of a resurgence. Undoubtedly, those who are the most suited and motivated to adopt a proactive approach are those involved in education in one way or another: teachers, support staff -- education workers and professionals, custodial staff, etc. -- students, parents and the local community.

At the request of some unions, Quebec's Ministry of Education recently published a "document of the number of positive cases in the School Boards between May 11 and June 3." According to this, 43 students and 33 teachers tested positive for COVID-19 during this period in which schools reopened in various regions outside of Montreal. Generally speaking, the number of students was largely reduced because some parents had decided not to send their children to school, making physical distancing much easier to respect. Still, a significant number of students and teachers were infected. Instead of basing itself on this experience, the Ministry of Education has adopted an approach which treats students and educators who get sick as unfortunate "collateral damage."

Schools are not islands cut off from the world. On the contrary, because of their place in the community, they can play a key role to stop the spread of the pandemic and any resurgence, the guiding principle being that those who are on the frontlines must decide how things can and must be organized in the safest way possible.

For example, according to collective agreements, there should be health and safety committees at the place of work. If ever there was a time to make sure these committees are functional, it is now. They can play a central role, starting with looking after basics such as the efficiency of ventilation systems and the condition of window screens so that classrooms have maximum ventilation.

Other things can be discussed such as the efficacy of face shields. Should wearing masks be mandatory in class, especially where physical distancing is impossible? If so, would it be possible to deliver certain subjects in alternate venues such as gymnasiums or outside, weather permitting, so that students can take a break from wearing their masks? This spring, pre-school teachers met with parents of new students at desks set up outside. How effective would transparent barriers be in classrooms, similar to the cardboard barriers students use when they want to concentrate or write an exam?

Obviously, the problems won't be the same at the primary and high school levels. If students are part of decision-making on how to live, work and learn in a safe environment, they will have plenty of things to propose. Other equally important issues to consider are the presence of nurses in each school, the taking of temperatures and COVID-19 testing.

Everyone has a stake in seeing to it that the learning environment is as safe as possible. There is already a shortage of teachers, and the prospect of renewed closures and confinement due to a COVID-19 resurgence arising in the school system is definitely not what anyone wishes for.

(Photo: H. Nadeau)

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British Students Take a Stand for Their Right to Education

Government Forced to Back Down from
Anti-Human Algorithm to Assign Final Grades

Students in Britain are in action to oppose the Ministry of Education and the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) for the use of an algorithm to grade graduating Advanced Level (A-level) students and over-riding the teacher-assessed grades, in the absence of final examinations due to the pandemic. The algorithm produced results, released August 13, in which 40 per cent of students' grades were below the predicted results as assessed by their teachers -- some students being marked down two to three grades -- with the consequence that many lost their place at university for the coming year. The algorithm is also said to have failed some students altogether if their school had poor results in the past. Making matters worse, the algorithm had a more pronounced impact on students who had smaller class sizes, giving an advantage to those in private schools. Extraordinarily, over 21,000 students got awarded a U grade, which is usually given to students who do not turn up to the exam or write anything in the exam. It had been reported that Education Secretary Gavin Williamson had been warned six weeks earlier by Sir Jon Coles, a former director-general for standards at the Department of Education, that the algorithm would only have an accuracy of 75 per cent; Ofqual's own assessment was that its results were only 60 per cent accurate.

On the release of the results, British students immediately took to the streets across Britain to defend both their own future and the character and values of a modern education system, with the full backing of teachers and education workers and their unions, with the result that the government was forced to reverse its stand on August 17 and agree that grades would be reissued based on teachers' assessments.

Workers' Weekly indicates that "This is a victory for the angered students, but it also exposes the problems at the heart of the education system which the pandemic has revealed starkly. It has underlined how the right to an education must be fought for.

"The government had thought that it could ride roughshod over the right to higher education of A-Level students because of the conditions of the pandemic. The students have demonstrated that the pandemic cannot be used as a justification to play fast and loose with the lives of young people.

"In fact, the battle continues, since in the time between the downgraded results of the Ofqual algorithm being announced and the government backing down, students have been making other arrangements to secure places at universities that were not their first choice. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson on August 17 confirmed that a cap on the number of students who can be accepted by universities would be lifted, but universities require the funding to take extra students. In addition, the government, and the Education Secretary in particular, refuse to be held accountable for the fiasco, which has demonstrated the disregard of those in authority for the future of the lives of young people as well as the attempt to negate the human factor. The demand now is that university places be found for all students who need them."

The government's actions in grading A-level students is just the latest example of its anti-social approach to education, especially during the pandemic, that eliminates the human factor, namely the role of teachers, as well as to undermine the right of the youth to an education.

As Workers' Weekly points out, "As with every issue during this pandemic, in particular the issue of the safe opening of schools, the necessity for those concerned to be involved in the decision-making process, and indeed their right to be involved, has been ignored or negated. And as with the issue of the safe opening of schools and the implementation of online learning, for example, the right for teachers, lecturers, students and others affected by what is decided to be involved, together with the procedure for deciding which students go on to university or further education, has raised the question of the character of education itself, and the participation of the students themselves in working this out.

Workers' Weekly concludes that "The issue has also raised the question of how education should be funded, in particular the funding for higher and further education. There is a necessity for a turning point in the financing of education. The whole issue of the character, values and funding of further and higher education shows the need for a public discussion on how to solve the issues. For some time, with the increase of the anti-social offensive, all sectors of an all-round education required to prepare the coming generation to take up its responsibility for society, have been under attack, especially the humanities. In addition, the imposition of fees, with students being saddled with a life-time of debt, is being challenged. It is particularly galling for the disadvantaged who, with working people as a whole, have been treated with contempt by the ruling elite."

(Photos: Workers' Weekly)

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Callous and Dangerous Stand of the British Government on School Reopenings
Is Unacceptable and Indefensible

The start of the new school year is rapidly approaching, with the expectation being that all children must return to school from September 1, as the government has decreed. At the same time, teachers, parents, schools and the education unions have made it clear that all the problems which are arising must be provided with solutions by placing the well-being of the people in the first place. The express aim must be to guarantee the right to education for all within the conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The first key demand is that the well-being of the people must be guaranteed under the conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic by ensuring that the guidelines against contagion are put in place. It is of the utmost importance to take account of the health and safety of all, including that of teaching staff and support teachers, students and school workers, including cleaners, cafeteria staff and site officers, as well as all other workers working within and for schools, together with parents, families and communities. This is necessary for schools of all kinds, from kindergartens, nurseries and pre-schools, through to primary and secondary schools, and indeed is also required in the universities and colleges.

Second, there is no reason why the right to education cannot be enforced and provided for all under these exceptional circumstances. The experience of the peoples of the world over the last 200 years or so shows that even in conditions of war, where bombs were dropping, including during the Blitz in London and elsewhere in Britain during the Second World War, possibilities were created for the children to continue their education.

The stand being taken by the government is extremely dangerous and can only be described as callous and deeply cynical. Their decision-making is grounded in nothing but the demands of the most narrow private interests in order to benefit from the economic and financial crisis which the prior schemes to pay the rich have created for the economies of England, Wales, Scotland and the north of Ireland. The government's thesis is that there is a "balance" to be struck between the health and safety of staff and students alike and the demands of the economy, and that a certain amount of "collateral damage," including a certain amount of death and social upheaval, simply must be borne.

It is important to debunk this corrupt and self-serving thesis and to reject the measures being imposed, which take no account of the well-being of anybody. Indeed, the arbitrary pronouncements and decisions the government has made throughout this whole Covid-19 crisis have seemed calculated to stifle those very voices fighting to guarantee the well-being and the right to education for all, and who are playing a role in providing the very solutions necessary to solve the problems as they emerge.

It could be said that what has been exposed is a crisis of authority. Throughout, the government acted in an authoritarian way, claiming the authority to make decisions on behalf of the polity, including announcing arbitrary dates for schools to return, the creation of class "bubbles" of up to 300 children in a year group, and the constantly changing rules of social distancing, whilst refusing to consult with teachers, parents, schools and the education unions, and acting in a callous and cynical way, frequently flying in the face of their oft-quoted "science," the most recent announcement being that all schools will open to all pupils from September 1. This is despite the numbers of Covid-19 related deaths still being alarmingly high and real fears of a second wave of the virus come the winter.

By contrast, the education unions, in consultation with their members, schools, parents and the wider community, have acted responsibly and with genuine authority. Their interest is in guaranteeing the well-being of everyone in society. Their authority lies in their determination to speak in their own name as part of fighting in defence of the rights of all. They seek to guarantee an education as a right for all, which they are working to bring into being, no matter what the conditions, for the whole of society.

(August 15, 2020)

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