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David Thomas King school in Edmonton on Oct. 15, 2021. The Alberta government last week announced school boards will receive $490 per eligible student to design and implement their own programs.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

The Alberta government has outlined how it will distribute $45-million to school divisions across the province to help students who have fallen behind during the pandemic, including by hiring additional staff or bringing in additional resources.

The money was announced in the spring to help an estimated 50,000 students believed to be struggling after pandemic-related shutdowns and a shift to online learning. The government announced last week that school boards will receive $490 per eligible student to design and implement their own programs.

Initially, around $30 million will be allocated to students in Grades 2 and 3, while the remaining $15 million will be used to help Grade 1 students in February of next year.

The spring funding announcement cited research from George Georgiou, an educational psychology professor at the University of Alberta, who found that students last fall were reading below their grade levels, with most struggling in primary school.

Dr. Georgiou’s research showed that with early intervention, 80 per cent of students between Grades 1 and 3 caught up to their grade levels. He welcomed the provincial funding.

“It is certainly important to support early grade students to bypass their early struggles,” he said. “Therefore, any funding toward this direction is commendable.”

Dr. Georgiou gave the provincial government a package of recommendations to help struggling students, including improving reading skills by focusing on phonological awareness – the ability to perceive and work with sound – as well as phonics – teaching methods used to help students learn how to read and write alphabets.

He said the package also included a set of lessons for many school divisions to help improve their students’ learning needs. He has already implemented some of his lessons by working closely with the divisions to set up small group early intervention programs.

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School boards expressed their appreciation for the funds.

In the Horizon School Division, Wilco Tymensen, the division’s superintendent and also a vice-president of the College of Alberta School Superintendents, noted a 20 per cent increase in students in Grades 2 and 3 unable to read at their grade level.

The Calgary Catholic School District said in an e-mailed statement that it had identified 4,575 of its Grade 2 and 3 students who require additional support. The district will receive $2.2-million for the 2021-22 school year.

The Calgary Public School Board said in an e-mailed statement that it intends to improve its current intervention programs by hiring additional teaching staff and increasing access to these programs.

As many school divisions prepare to use their allocated funds, some parents have questioned how their divisions will spend the funds and who will benefit from it.

Melissa Bishop, a parent of a Grade 2 student in Edmonton, said that her son has not made it to grade reading level.

During a parent-teacher conference earlier this week, her son’s teacher told her that he had difficulties with certain comprehension activities.

Throughout the pandemic, her son spent most of his learning from a Chromebook. She noticed that the disruptive nature of this environment had a detrimental impact on his ability to learn.

“I’m wondering if that allocation of $490 per student is actually going to go to the students in a way that benefits them,” she said.

Nicole Sparrow, press secretary for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said in an e-mailed statement that the money can be used for things such as implementing one-on-one support, hiring additional staff, improving communications with and involvement from parents, and providing additional resources to staff.

“This funding will allow schools to increase support to improve reading, writing and numeracy skills for younger students who have fallen behind during the pandemic,” Ms. Sparrow wrote.

Sarah Hoffman, the NDP education critic, said the funds represent a fraction of what the Alberta government cut from education last year.

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