Reaction came in strong from Alberta school districts after Premier Jason Kenney announced Tuesday that his government was lifting COVID-19 restrictions.
Mandatory masks for kids 12 and under will end on Feb. 13 at 11:59 p.m., he said at a press conference. For children and youths of all ages, wearing masks will no longer be required at schools.
In a letter to school authorities, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange outlined the impact that relaxing COVID-19 restrictions will have on schools and students.
“I have been encouraged to see a downward trend in the number of Alberta schools shifted to at-home learning over the last few weeks,” she said.
“At the peak of the fifth wave, there were 29 schools that were shifted to at-home learning, and today, only seven of the over 2,500-plus schools in our province remain learning at home.”
LaGrange said the masking requirement that will be removed effective Feb. 14 will apply to any students in schools or on school buses. Masking will still be required for adult staff and drivers.
“At this time, prevention measures, including cohorting, as well as enhanced cleaning and sanitization, will remain in school environments,” she said.
The Calgary Board of Education told parents Tuesday night: “We know families have many questions about this announcement and what it means for their child. In the next few days, we will review our health measures in view of these changes.”
The Calgary Catholic School District said all health measures in its buildings will stay in place until further notice.
CCSD spokesperson Felicia Zuniga said the senior administrative team will be working on “a plan of action” in response to the province’s announcement.
In a series of tweets, Edmonton Public School Board chair Trisha Estabrooks said the province’s announcement came as a surprise to the district.
“School divisions were not consulted on this shift,” she wrote. “If we were, EPSB would have shared the desire to move slowly, to listen to parents, to listen to boards.”
However, she emphasized school divisions have no authority to require mandatory masking.
“I know this will deeply upset many,” Estabrooks wrote.
“With low vaccination rates in kids age five to 11, this definitely feels like we are taking away a key layer in the approach to keep students and staff as safe as possible.”
In a media update Wednesday morning, Estabrooks said many young students are still not vaccinated and removing masks now is too fast.
“Parents have had a lot of faith in our back-to-school plan at Edmonton Public Schools, and I’m hearing a lot of frustration and a lot of concern. And I just want to say to parents and to staff that we hear you. This is a lot of change, and it’s happening very quickly.”
According to provincial data, 46.3 per cent of Alberta children ages five to 11 have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and are not yet eligible for a second dose.
In a statement, Edmonton Catholic Schools board chair Sandra Palazzo said she understands many families have differing views on the decision to end mask requirements.
“Edmonton Catholic Schools will always support students who choose to wear a mask in school. On the same note, we will support students who choose not to wear a mask,” she said.
“We are expecting to receive more guidance from Alberta Education and Alberta Health in the coming days. This information will further support our division in updating our back-to-school plan, something we have done multiple times this school year to maintain in-person learning and ensure we are creating meaningful and rich learning opportunities for our students.”
Don’t want a ‘hasty decision’
The president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association said he is concerned about the speed at which the mask mandate is being lifted.
“We’ve consistently heard from government and health officials that schools reflect the COVID positivity rate in the community. We heard yesterday that the positivity rate is still well over 30 per cent. So why remove the mask mandate so quickly when community spread is not yet decreased significantly? What will be so different next week from this week?” Schilling said Wednesday morning.
He said the ATA was not consulted in the decision, so does not have an indication as to why the mask mandate is being removed so quickly. Schilling said he would like to see the data the government is using to make these decisions. He would also like to sit down with the government to give them an indication of what those in schools are feeling and experiencing.
“A return to a normal school setting is something that everyone is hoping for. However, we do not want a hasty decision to put us a step backwards in just a few weeks,” he said.
“We strongly urge the government to take a more cautious approach regarding the removal of safety protocols in schools.”
Schilling said the ATA will look at all of its options to make sure teachers are working in a healthy and safe atmosphere but added their hands are somewhat tied given the education minister’s letter informing school boards they don’t have the power to override the mask directive.
Premier, education minister on the offensive
The premier and education minister went on the offensive Wednesday evening, posting separate videos to social media within minutes of each other attacking the ATA’s position.
“Last night after the premier’s announcement, the vice-president of the ATA said the union would be contacting their lawyers and will fight to keep masks on children,” Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said in the video.
“This is just plain wrong. Children pose absolutely no threat to teachers, and for the teachers’ union to say that they do is unscientific, it’s divisive and it’s cruel.”
She did not provide evidence that children cannot transmit COVID-19 while unmasked.
Kenney pointed to a late Tuesday tweet in which Greg Carabine, a vice-president of the ATA’s executive council, responded to a request for help “(navigating) being forced into unsafe workplaces.”
Carabine said ATA lawyers “will be working on it in the morning.”
“According to ATA members and leaders, they believe this is creating an ‘unsafe workplace for teachers,’” Kenney said in the video.
“Imagine that they think that kids who are not wearing masks are somehow unsafe. It’s looking at children not as kids but as vectors of viral transmission. And this is coming from teachers who are almost entirely triple vaccinated, who will continue to wear masks themselves.”
Both Kenney and LaGrange repeated the phrase “let kids be kids” in extolling the “return to normal” as part of the removal of masking requirements for kids.
‘Throwing schools into chaos’
Support Our Students Alberta tweeted the changes Kenney announced are “unarguably reckless and illogical.”
“Once again, the UCP prioritizes politics over the health and safety of students,” the group said.
“To abruptly remove masks from schools on short notice, without school board consultation, risks throwing schools into chaos yet again.”
Reaction from parents at one school in Edmonton was mixed as they dropped their kids off for class Wednesday morning.
“I am very concerned about this because they’re little, and I don’t want them to be sick, obviously. I think masks can protect them,” said Barbara Yang, who has two kids: one in Grade 4 and another in Grade 6.
She said masks have made a difference and has suggested her children keep wearing them after Monday.
Sienko Ikhabi said he has conflicting feelings about the mask decision.
“I think they serve a purpose, but also for the kids, I also understand they probably find it difficult to have the masks on all day.”
Touqeer Sohail has two kids. He said he will see what happens with case counts but admits he feels the decision to remove the mask mandate came too quickly.
“I think it might be better if we wait another month or so,” Sohail said. “I would like them to continue wearing masks but those are kids, so once they are with other kids, you never know.”
Harman Rao said he’s not happy with the decision and has asked his child to keep wearing a mask while at school.
“For me, that is a big issue,” Rao said. “I said, ‘You have to wear a mask every time.'”
— With files from Caley Gibson and Adam Toy, Global News