According to a health order signed by Dr. Deena Hinshaw over the weekend, students will not be required to distance from one another when seated in their desks in classrooms when they return to school this week.
The order, which outlines measures meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, was released this weekend without notice and says that “an operator of a school does not need to ensure that students, staff members and visitors are able to maintain a minimum of two metres distance from every other person when a student, staff member or visitor is seated at desk or table.”
It also specifies that the distancing does not need to be maintained between students who are within a classroom where instruction is taking place, and where desks and chairs are arranged in a manner to prevent people from facing one another.
Hinshaw, who signed the order dated Aug. 29, took to social media on Monday in response to online backlash to the order. The province’s chief medical officer of health said the information in it was not new and was not meant to be deliberately released without notice.
On Monday, at the provincial daily update for the COVID-19 situation in the province, Hinshaw said that the guidance around schools has not changed since it was first announced.
“The guidance that has been in place for weeks and the policy direction that was put in place at the beginning of August is exactly the same as Order 33,” Hinshaw said.
“The requirements for masking within a classroom when students are seated — that requirement is eased as long as desks are placed as far apart as possible, students are seated and not doing active activity, and students are not facing each other. Those requirements have been in our guidance for weeks.
“I am very sorry for the anxiety and confusion that this order has sparked. This timing is not meant to hide information. Ironically, it was meant to be transparent. I understand the concerns, especially as we move forward quickly.”
Hinshaw tweeted Monday that the weekend timing of the order was meant to allow educators time to go through it before it came into effect Monday.
“Effective immediately, my goal will be to post new orders Monday through Thursday and I will share when they have been posted via social media,” Hinshaw said.
When the mask announcement was first made, Hinshaw said, “To be clear, masks are not required in the classroom when students are seated.
“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.”
She also specified at the announcement on Aug. 4 that “if students or teachers are interacting in a way that’s close and involves them working together, then masks wearing would be expected.
“If students are seated in their desks, working quietly and not moving around, and the teacher is distanced from them, then mask wearing is optional in that setting, even if they are less than two metres apart.”
On Monday, Hinshaw said that schools are also being instructed to arrange desks so students are not facing one another.
“If two metres cannot be arranged between desks or tables, students should be arranged so they are not facing each other… That way, if a student coughs or sneezes, they are not likely to cough or sneeze on the face on another student.”
On Monday, Alberta Teacher’s Association president Jason Schilling said that he believes the order goes against advice educators have been given from officials for months.
“We have students starting this week, so to change the parameters of the re-entry plan at such a late date is adding a lot of anxiety to an already stressed environment,” Schilling said in an interview with Global News on Monday.
He also questioned why health officials believe there’s less need to distance when students are in their seats.
“Kids turn around, they look at each other, they do all sorts of things in the classroom… There’s a bit of a disconnect between the medical plan and the educational setting.”
Schilling added the ATA surveyed some of its teachers over the weekend and found that 91 per cent of them are already anxious and exhausted about the re-entry plan.
“Teachers want to be in school. They want to be with their students. But they want to be safe,” he said.
Hinshaw also clarified Monday that cohorts should not expand beyond each individual classroom.
“The intention of in-school cohorts in our guidance is to minimize the number of people who would be exposed should an infectious case be identified at a school. In-school cohorts should be limited to those who are in a class together, and should be kept small — limiting a cohort to just one class.”
In a news release Monday, the NDP said the government needs to explain what it will be doing with recently announced federal funding to help provinces support students returning to class.
“It’s complete chaos and incompetence from this government,” said Sarah Hoffman, the NDP critic for education. “This weekend we found out they were changing rules for physical distancing in schools because their back-to-school plan was insufficient and would violate their own public health orders.”
Hoffman said in an interview with Global News that she believes the province has failed to make physical distancing a priority.
“It’s very clear that physical distancing isn’t likely to be a reality in most Alberta schools. And instead of pretending that it’s even possible, I think we have a clear acknowledgement in the order that it isn’t possible.”
Hoffman also said Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Education Minister Adriana LaGrange should have participated in Monday’s provincial COVID-19 update to answer questions about school safety.
“Tyler Shandro and Adriana LaGrange have been missing in action in the middle of a pandemic. Instead of constantly hiding behind Dr. Hinshaw, it’s time for them to provide some real answers to Albertans,” said Hoffman. “We still don’t even know how they will spend the money from the federal government.”