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COVID-19

Public School Board calls for cancellation of Provincial Diploma Exams

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From Red Deer Public Schools

School trustees from Red Deer Public Schools are calling on the provincial government to suspend Grade 12 Diploma Exams for the 2020/21 school year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Board will present an emergent resolution to the Alberta School Boards Association Fall General Meeting calling for the change.

Diploma Exams are a standardized provincial test taken at the end of Grade 12 level core subjects and count as 30% of a student’s final grade in a course. These marks are used to determine admission to post-secondary education, so they have a significant impact on students.

Provincial Achievement Tests are standardized provincial assessments taken by students in Grades 6 and 9 for core courses. The Minister of Education has made these optional at the discretion of the school board. Red Deer Public is finalizing its decision on whether these exams will be offered or not in the next few weeks.

“Teaching and learning for thousands of students around the province have already been interrupted when they have needed to isolate as a result of the pandemic,” said Board Chair Nicole Buchanan. “While our teachers support continued learning while students are away from school, generally for 14 days, we are hearing there are many students who have gaps when they return to school, they fall further behind creating significant anxiety for students facing Diploma Exams. We know this is an issue and concern for school boards across the province. Education Minister Adrianna LaGrange has commented they are monitoring the situation, but with some Diploma Exams coming up within weeks, a decision needs to be made now.”

While the government states early feedback from parents wanted a return to regular assessment, including provincial exams, that was early in the re-entry process. We are hearing increasing concerns from parents, students and staff advocating for the suspension of provincial exams given the uncertainty of COVID-19.

Schools are also concerned with the logistics of administering hundreds of Diploma Exams in a setting with a mix of students learning in school and at home as well as meeting physical distancing requirements. Running exams will be challenging, further diminishing the reliability of the results.

“Given the multiple challenges schools have faced this year, we are confident that in-class assessment by teachers will provide a true picture on student knowledge and understanding of course outcomes,” said Superintendent Chad Erickson. “We are hearing reports from students, parents and teachers that the prospects of Diploma Exams are creating a great degree of stress specifically related to COVID-19. Given their high stakes, as well as the uncertainty of COVID-19, it’s important to know whether exams are on or off. We don’t want Diploma Exams to disadvantage students—we want what is best for all students across the province.”

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Alberta

‘Dealing with a lot:’ Suicide crisis calls mount during COVID-19 pandemic

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CALGARY — Hannah Storrs has needed to take more breaks than usual during her shifts on a 24-hour crisis line as the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies the struggles of those reaching out for help.

Distress Centre Calgary says suicide-related calls, texts and chats were up 66 per cent in October compared with the same month in 2019.

Of the more than 4,800 interactions last month, nearly one-quarter dealt with suicide. That could mean someone contemplating ending his or her life or an attempt in progress.

“We’re seeing it more back-to-back rather than the odd one here and there that is more intense,” says Storrs, the centre’s crisis team lead.

“People are dealing with a lot right now. They’re dealing with isolation. They’re dealing with mental health issues. They’re dealing with financial issues on top of being just scared of what can happen in the world.”

Storrs says calls, where there is an imminent risk, are in the minority and emergency services are only called in rare cases. Most often she and her colleagues help people develop a plan that will get them through the moment.

The work is more emotionally draining now than it was before the pandemic, she says. She makes sure to take breaks to calm herself after tough calls — something the centre encourages along with extra debriefing time.

“We can’t help other people if we’re not helping ourselves first, especially being on the lines.”

She says she didn’t realize it was taking a toll until she found herself feeling frustrated and ruminating about calls after work, wondering what more she could have done to help.

It has also been physically exhausting.

“Honestly, after a shift, I would just have to go take a nap. I’d be tired.”

Diane Jones Konihowski, the distress centre’s director of fund development and communications, says suicide-related calls were also rising over the summer, which was a concern because it was still nice outside.

“We assume that those numbers and percentages are going to go up as we get into — 20 C, we get into the ice and snow, where people are really not going out as much as they normally do.”

The Canada Suicide Prevention Service, a national network of crisis lines, says there’s been a 200 per cent increase in calls and texts between October 2019 and the same month this year.

People in crisis call a centralized line, which routes them to a distress centre in their community.

While volumes have gone up, there has not been a parallel rise in “active rescues” that require emergency intervention, says Dr. Allison Crawford, the service’s chief medical officer.

The service has added backup responders to deal with the surge, added Crawford, who is also a psychiatrist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

Between 15 and 20 per cent of those reaching out during the pandemic have mentioned COVID-19, though the service doesn’t keep track of more specific virus-related contacts.

Crawford says that is likely to mirror the results of a series of surveys the Toronto-based centre and technology company Delvinia have done throughout the pandemic.

The most recent one with more than 1,000 respondents in September found about one-fifth were experiencing moderate to severe anxiety, loneliness and depression.

Eighteen per cent said they were very worried about their finances and 26 per cent said they were very worried about contracting COVID-19, or someone close to them getting sick.

Research has shown that historically there’s a link between economic downturns and increased suicides, Crawford says.

But it’s too soon to know the toll the pandemic and its associated economic strife have taken.

“We know that we’re seeing this increase in calls. We don’t yet know whether we’re experiencing an increase in actual completed suicides. There’s no evidence to this point to suggest that.”

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: Online crisisservicescanada.ca. Phone 1-833 456-4566. Text — 45645 (4 p.m. to 12 a.m. ET)

Distress Centre Calgary: Online distresscentre.com. Phone 403-266-HELP (4357)

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec 3, 2020.

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Alberta strikes team to roll out COVID-19 vaccine in three phases starting in January

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EDMONTON — Premier Jason Kenney says Alberta expects to start getting COVID-19 vaccines in the first week of January, and high-risk patients and health workers will get them first.

Kenney says the province has struck an inter-departmental team to roll out the vaccines from 30 different locations.

“Alberta is well prepared to receive, distribute and administer a vaccine as soon as doses arrive,” Kenney told reporters Wednesday.

“This is evidence that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and we can see this critical juncture when we will get past the terrible damage that COVID-19 has caused for our society.”

Alberta continues to lead Canada in per-capita rates of COVID-19, with 1,685 new cases announced Wednesday for a total active count of 17,144 infections.

There are 504 people in hospital, with 97 of them in intensive care. There were also 10 more deaths. In total, 561 Albertans have died from the virus.

The health system is working to free up more ICU beds and, in an unusual step, COVID-19 patients are being double-bunked rather than being kept in isolation at Edmonton’s University of Alberta Hospital.

Kenney said the vaccine group will be headed by senior civil servant Paul Wynnyk to plan the rollout.

“We have been assured by the federal government that shipments will begin to arrive by Jan. 4 and continue to arrive in waves throughout the early part of next year,” said Kenney.

The doses are to be distributed at 30 depots across the province. Kenney said the Moderna one needs to be kept cold and the Pfizer version needs to be kept at ultra-low temperatures, so special freezers and transports are being ordered.

Both vaccines, he said, need to be administered in two doses three to six weeks apart.

Officials expect to vaccinate 435,000 Albertans, or about 10 per cent of the population, in the first few months of 2021, with a focus on long-term and other care residents as well as health-care workers.

The second phase would run in late spring and aim to have one-third of the rest of the population immunized. Wynnyk’s team would determine the priority recipients in this phase.

The final phase, when the rest of Albertans get vaccinated, is pegged to begin next summer.

“That means it will be months before vaccine is available to the general population,” said Kenney.

“This is the unfortunate reality.

“Obviously the risk of hospitalizations and COVID-19 fatalities will decline significantly once we’re able to vaccinate the most vulnerable.

“But let’s be clear: all of us will have to continue following public-health guidelines even after the first wave of vaccinations have occurred.”

Albertans are currently banned from having extended gatherings in homes beyond those who live under the same roof. Outdoor gatherings are limited to 10 people.

There is also a range of health restrictions for everything from places of worship to schools, businesses, retailers, bars and restaurants aimed at keeping as much of the economy open as possible while bending the curve on the pandemic.

Critics, including the Opposition NDP and some physicians and infectious disease specialists, say skyrocketing case numbers show the restrictions are not enough and the long-term health of both people and the economy is at risk.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro confirmed media reports that the province has asked the Canadian Red Cross and the federal government for field hospitals to help with the case surge.

Shandro said the request is part of long-term and prudent contingency planning.

“This (tent scenario) is not something that’s in our current plans to increase our acute-care bed capacity,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2020.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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