A number of Alberta schools remain open for in-person classes despite an announcement earlier this week that schools across the province would move online.
A spokesperson for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange confirmed this week that Hutterite colony and Mennonite schools would remain open.
The minister's office says the number of schools using the exemption and continuing to hold in-person classes is not being tracked by the ministry, but said school boards would have that information.
The province announced this week kindergarten to Grade 12 students would move to at-home learning until after the May long weekend as part of a series of heightened COVID-19 public health restrictions.
COVID-19 protocols still in place
LaGrange's press secretary Nicole Sparrow said exceptions have been made to ensure continuity in learning in certain circumstances. Students with disabilities will continue to receive in-person support and pre-kindergarten programs across the province can remain open, she noted.
"Hutterite colony and Mennonite schools have also been granted exemptions, as these unique communities lack the technology and equipment required to support online learning," she said.
Sparrow said if a COVID-19 case is detected in an open school, school operations will be evaluated by the school authority and Alberta Education.
"Staff and students will be expected to follow COVID protocols when working in schools, including those in Mennonite schools and on Hutterite colonies," she said.
Sparrow said that Hutterite colony schools were allowed to remain open when Alberta schools moved online earlier in the pandemic. Since then, the province received feedback from divisions with Mennonite communities who said that option would be helpful to them as well.
As of November 2020, Sparrow said there were 3,662 Hutterite students in 194 Alberta schools. So far this year, she said 32 out of 58 Mennonite schools have provided data for the current school year, and that there are 3,556 students enrolled in those schools. She said that a school has to demonstrate that a large proportion of its students are Mennonite to be considered.
The minister's office said it expected most schools eligible for the exemption would take it.
Northern schools stay open
Several schools in the Fort Vermilion School Division in northwest Alberta will be able to remain open for in-person classes. The public school division notes on its website that the region is home to a Mennonite population, but also Beaver, Dene and Cree First Nations.
The division's schools staying open for in-person classes include:
Ridgeview Central School
La Crete Public School
Blue Hills Community School
Buffalo Head Prairie School
Hill Crest Community School
Sandhills Elementary School
Spokesperson Bill Schnarr said the division had already set up a new at-home learning school at the beginning of the school year, and that it offers other online and homeschooling options for families.
Asked about accommodations for teachers and school staff concerned about COVID-19, he said "they will be working according [to] where the children are."
Schnarr also addressed a letter that had circulated on social media this week in which Ridgeview Central School's acting principal announced that the Grade 4 to 6 school in La Crete would stay open in-person and directed parents and guardians not to post about it on social media. He described it as a misunderstanding.
"We had intended for the parents to be contacted by phone and asked not to contact parents by social media. Due to the wording of the letter, however, we understand how it could be misinterpreted to be conspiratorial. That was definitely not our intent," he said.