When students return to school in September amid COVID-19, some of them will be required to wear masks in hallways and other shared spaces to prevent the spread of the virus. But they won’t have to wear them in class.
At an announcement Tuesday, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange and Alberta’s chief medical officer of health said the government made the decision after a careful review of evidence.
“I am now recommending that non-medical masks be worn by staff, teachers, and students Grade 4 and above this fall,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw said.
“Since Day 1, we have committed to acting on the best evidence available at any given time,” she said.
“We know that masks can be an effective addition to reducing COVID-19 transmission when used properly.
“To be clear, masks are not required in the classroom when students are seated,” Hinshaw said. “However, they are required in hallways and any shared places where students, staff or teachers may not be able to maintain the recommended physical distancing requirements.”
Every student, teacher, and staff member will receive two reusable masks as part of the new plan, LaGrange said.
“To assist with these new guidelines, Alberta’s government will provide every single Kindergarten to Grade 12 student with two reusable masks,” she said.
“The safety and the well-being of our staff and our students has been and continues to be my number one priority.”
About 1.6 million masks will be distributed to 740,000 students and 90,000 staff. Additional single-use masks will be made available at schools, and the government will also be supplying 466,000 litres of hand sanitizer to schools.
Teachers and staff will also be supplied with one face shield, to be used with a mask. As well, schools will each be supplied with two contactless thermometers.
“Given the fact that we are now mandating masks for all students and for staff, we’ve gone the extra measure for providing these resources and paying for these resources,” LaGrange said. “This will cost an additional $10 million on top of the $120 million that … has been added to budgets for the upcoming school year.”
Hinshaw said that making Grade 4 the mandatory mask cutoff was also based on emerging evidence that shows children who are 10 or older may be more likely to transmit COVID-19 than younger children.
“They are further along in their development, and so better able to wear masks appropriately and safely,” she said.
Mask use in younger children can be considered, Hinshaw said, but will not be mandatory.
Mental health impacts of cancelled class
At Tuesday afternoon’s provincial COVID-19 update, Hinshaw said that officials are also weighing the effects cancelling classes may have had on the mental health of students.
“Closing schools has significant emotional, physical and mental health impacts on kids, particularly those who are the most vulnerable,” Hinshaw said.
“Returning to school with precautions in place seeks to balance all the needs of our children.
“Schools provide not just an educational environment, but they provide an environment for support.”
She added that some studies have shown that younger children are less likely to transmit the virus, and that other areas have seen success with similar plans.
“Evidence in jurisdictions around the world suggest that schools do not appear to be a major driver of community spread,” she said.
‘Learn to live’ with COVID-19
The province announced in late July that K-12 students would head back to classrooms this fall, saying in-school classes would resume with near-normal daily operations and added health measures.
According to the government’s school re-entry plan, those health measures include frequent cleaning of surfaces, placing hand sanitizers at school entrances and classrooms, grouping students in cohorts and planning the school day to allow for physical distancing, which could include staggering start times for classes, recesses and lunches. Plexiglass barriers may also be installed at certain schools.
“Masks alone do not keep kids safe from COVID-19,” Hinshaw said Tuesday. “Indeed, no single precaution or public health measure will eliminate all risks in schools or any other setting.
“We have no choice but to learn to live with it.”
LaGrange also said that the government is also working to expand testing capacity to lower the turnaround times for results when it comes to in-school staff and students.