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Physician-led group calls for mandatory masks when kids head back to school

Physician-led group calls for mandatory masks in Canadian schools
The province's plan for back to school is set, but one group wants to see it taken a step further. As Morgan Black explains, some physicians now want to see masks be made mandatory in the classroom.

A group of Canadian physicians and citizens is asking for the Alberta government school re-entry plan to include mandatory masks.

Dr. Amy Tan is a Calgary-based family physician and an organizer for Masks4Canada. She said the group wants to see masks mandatory for all Canadian students when they return in the fall during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more: Coronavirus: Should masks be mandatory? Alberta doctors, Hinshaw weigh in

“We absolutely want schools to open, but we need to do it in as safe a manner as possible,” Tan said. “We can’t just say the doors are open and it’s like last September. Things must be done to mitigate risk so we have a chance of keeping these schools open.”

The grassroots group of volunteers started with concerned physicians. Scientists, business owners, lawyers, teachers and parents have now all joined the push for mask mandates in Canada.

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Read more: Alberta K-12 students to head back to classroom this fall

“If we don’t have a good handle on community transmission with COVID-19 in the community, it will not allow schools to safely open,” Tan said.

The group endorses a call for mandatory face coverings, with the exceptions for individuals with medical conditions and young children in the following locations:

  • All indoor spaces outside the home
  • Crowds
  • Transit

Tan said the conversation has shifted to include schools.

“The science has evolved to show us that [wearing a mask] does work,” Tan said. “We’ve been pushing for mask mandates to increase uptakes to 80 per cent in high-risk situations. Schools have definitely come onto the mission list.”

On Tuesday, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw outlined the differences students and staff would see in the fall, including monitoring symptoms on a daily basis, students washing or sanitizing their hands before and after entering school and classrooms, and surfaces will be disinfected more often.

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Read more: Alberta to provide COVID-19, education re-entry update Tuesday afternoon

Premier Jason Kenney said staff and students may wear a mask if they choose to, however “practices such as physical distancing, cohorting, frequent handwashing, staying home when sick and increased cleaning of surfaces will continue to be the priority public health measures.”

“We recognize how difficult masking would be for many students, especially elementary, which is why we aren’t relying on any single public health measure in the school setting,” Hinshaw said.

Tan said the group encourages parents to start teaching their kids how to properly wear masks.

Read more: You might be wearing your mask, gloves wrong. How to use PPE properly

“Masking is something that will need to be taught,” Tan said. “It is a learned skill, it’s similar to teaching your toddler to use the bathroom or wash their hands.”

Edmonton mom Greta Gerstner said she thinks her 10 and 13-year-old are a bit nervous for September’s return to school. Both of her children are asthmatic.

“I know that being at school is the best learning environment for them, socially and academically. That’s where they need to be. However, as a parent I am struggling,” Gerstner said. “For me, it’s not a matter of ‘if’ they get the disease… it’s ‘when.'”

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She said her own children would be fine with wearing a mask, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario.

“There are a lot of kids with sensory processing challenges that could not wear a mask,” said Gerstner.

Tan acknowledges that masks may not work for all kids, especially those who might be too young or have developmental and cognitive concerns. In those instances, the group is advocating for face shields instead. The same strategy may work for teachers, who rely on facial expressions or non-verbal cues to connect and communicate with students.

Masks4Canada has sent recommendations within the last 24 hours to various ministries of education as well as school boards across Canada.

In September, 750,000 Alberta students will head back to class.