Alberta Education on Wednesday announced increased funding for mental health support for K-12 schools — but did not address the reasons many parents say cause stress in students, including learning disruption, absenteeism and increasing illness.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange attended a French-language school in Calgary to announce a “doubling” of existing annual mental health funding, adding another $10 million each year to the existing $10 million per year over two years, which previously announced in Budget 2022.
The additional money will support up to 60 “mental health pilot projects” in urban and rural areas to improve student mental health and provide additional training for staff.
“The relationship between positive mental health and academic success is of great importance and one that is a top priority for our government,” LaGrange said.
“I have heard first-hand from parents, teachers and other school staff that learning interruptions and temporary school closures have affected the mental health and well-being of many, if not all, students in one way or another in recent years.”
But parents and education advocates have argued for weeks that it is the lack of stronger health measures, such as mask mandates, that is causing disruption, stress and anxiety among students.
“This government has put students in a completely untenable situation,” Fresh Air Schools spokeswoman Amanda Hu said.
“Children are afraid to go to school because they see disease all around them.
“They see classmates can’t come to school, or they can’t come to school because they are sick and want to do the right thing. But then they feel guilty because they miss out, or they can’t help with a group assignment, or they fall behind.
“How can all this not affect your mental health?”
Medeana Moussa, spokesperson for Support Our Students, added: “Families are incredibly stressed at the moment. And that’s because they’re stuck in this constant cycle of kids leaving and missing school and falling behind.
“And that’s exactly what happens if you don’t use any mitigation measures.”
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LaGrange was pressed several times about why the province would not commit to a mask mandate on Wednesday, even after Premier Danielle Smith made it clear several times in the past week that she would not reinstate mask mandates in schools.
And when asked if Alberta Education would consider allowing individual school boards to implement their own mask mandates without the approval of the province, LaGrange essentially said no.
“School boards are not allowed to mask students without a chief medical officer of health command, and I’m not going to prejudge or speculate on what the new chief medical officer of health will say.”
Since being elected in the UCP leadership vote last month, Smith has replaced former CMOH dr. Deena Hinshaw, who led the province throughout the pandemic, replaced with Dr. Alberta Health Services Vice President Mark Joffe.
LaGrange said families told the government that masking also increased their anxiety.
“I heard from many parents and students that it was masking that contributed to mental health challenges and feelings of anxiety.
“Some even had trouble breathing properly and learning properly.”
School boards in Alberta’s major cities have seen sickness and absences skyrocket in recent weeks, with the Calgary Board of Education now reporting 12 percent absenteeism this week, and the Edmonton Public School Board nearing 14 percent.
The Calgary Catholic School District also says about 35 per cent of its schools are now experiencing more than 10 per cent absenteeism, meaning they are on the brink. And two classrooms were forced to switch to online learning at home.
Hu added that even if the province adds funding to mental health support, anxiety and learning loss will continue to rise along with illness and learning disruptions.
“I have no idea how any learning outcomes can be achieved as things are going.”
LaGrange added that Wednesday’s funding announcement will be on top of the $45 million provided last year to address pandemic learning loss in grades 1 to 3 students across Alberta.
But school boards said they were still short of funding, with the CBE confirming at a board meeting just two weeks ago that this year’s $1.15 billion operating budget was essentially the same as last year’s, while this year welcomed a record 5,886 additional students.
Public school officials also said investments to support students with special needs are falling behind, leaving Alberta Education with a funding gap of about $50 million to address growing complexities in increasingly overcrowded classrooms.