Masks won’t be mandatory in Alberta schools this fall, but students and staff will still have to isolate if they test positive for COVID-19 or are symptomatic.
On Friday, the province’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and Education Minister Adriana LaGrange joined together to provide an update on Alberta’s back-to-school plan.
“I know that we all care deeply about our children and their safety and well-being and there are a variety of perspectives on how to best balance all of the risks they face,” Hinshaw said.
“The guidance we are releasing today considers the risks of COVID-19 as well as the risks of public health measures on children’s overall health and well-being.
“It is important that we look at all factors that support physical, mental and emotional health to make sure that precautions are proportionate to overall risk level. It is in this broader context that our provincial guidance has been crafted.”
“We know that the provincial health measures that were necessary last year to control COVID-19 — including the temporary closure of schools to in-person learning, quarantine of entire classes and cancelling extracurricular events — have been associated with the deterioration in the mental health of children and youth,” Hinshaw said.
“Many children have reported increased feelings of social isolation, depression and anxiety. It is important to keep the negative impact of these measures in mind, particularly when looking at a population that is at lower risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19.
“We have worked closely with Alberta Education and Alberta Health Services to develop guidance to prevent and manage all respiratory illnesses in schools,” Hinshaw said. “This guidance includes expectations around good public health practices, such as staying home when sick and regular hand hygiene and cleaning.”
Alberta has now released both a back-to-school tool kit for parents and school staff and a document outlining guidelines for how to manage and prevent respiratory illness in schools.
The biggest takeaways from Friday’s announcement
The province says students and staff should continue daily screening for COVID-19 symptoms using the Alberta Health Daily Checklist and must isolate for 10 days if they test positive for COVID-19 or have any of the following “core” COVID-19 symptoms:
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Loss of sense of smell or taste
- Sore throat (adults only)
- Runny nose (adults only)
Isolation is required for 10 days from the onset of the symptoms, or until a negative COVID-19 test result is received.
Though Hinshaw said masking will not be provincially required in schools, she said it may be recommended as one of several temporary interventions for respiratory outbreaks in general.
Masking will be required on school buses.
In addition, the province is “strongly encouraging” all eligible Albertans, including students, staff, parents and guardians to get vaccinated before the school year begins.
Hinshaw said as of Aug. 12, 65 per cent of Alberta’s 12- to 14-year-olds and 67 per cent of the province’s 15- to 19-year-olds have received one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while 54 per cent of 12- to 14-year-olds and 56 per cent of 15- to 19-year-olds are fully protected with two doses.
To increase accessibility to vaccinations for Alberta students, the province announced on Friday that immunizations would be available in schools for students in grades 7 to 12 and staff through temporary clinics.
The clinics, which begin on Sept. 7, will require students to have consent forms completed by a parent or guardian before they can get a shot.
The province noted the 2021-22 school year plan contains two contingency scenarios in case there is a “significant change in the COVID-19 situation” in the fall.
“I’m pleased that students can return to a normal school year in September,” LaGrange said. “The safety of students and staff remains our number one priority.”
“We will continue to follow the expert advice of Alberta’s chief medical officer of health and are ready to make changes if needed.”
Alberta NDP calls back-to-school COVID-19 guidance ‘bizarre’
NDP health critic David Shepherd said Premier Jason Kenney’s UCP government is “failing to keep students, staff and families safe.”
He said it’s “bizarre” to hear the province say it will be keeping COVID-19 measures for another six weeks as it monitors increasing cases of the Delta variant but also say it will “do nothing to limit that spread in schools this fall.”
CBE says finalized health measures coming by Sept. 1
The Calgary Board of Education released a statement on Friday saying it appreciates the clarity provided by the province.
“This information will help us to finalize a set of health measures that consider the CBE’s individual circumstances with enough time to have these measures in place for the start of traditional calendar schools on Sept. 1,” the CBE said.
“We will share an update with CBE families soon and look forward to welcoming students back in September.”
ECSD and EPSB respond to new guidance
In response to the province’s announcement, the Edmonton Catholic School District said it will extend the deadline for parents to decide whether they want their children to learn online or through in-person classes to Thursday.
The ECSD said it will release its own back-to-school plan on Monday.
Late Friday afternoon, the Edmonton Public School Board held an emergency meeting after which it announced it will make masks mandatory for all students in kindergarten up to Grade 12.
“We feel like this is the prudent measure,” EPSB chair Trisha Estrabrooks said. “This is the measure that will keep kids and staff as safe as possible as we enter yet another school year where we are managing COVID-19.”