Alberta education minister ‘not anticipating’ school mask mandate despite early, numerous student absences

Students arrive for in-class learning at an elementary school in Mississauga, Ont., Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Alberta’s education minister repeated her government’s line that Albertans should not anticipate mask mandates in schools, despite early and high numbers of student absences.

“We have been very clear that we do not anticipate going to a masking mandate,” Adriana LaGrange said at an unrelated news conference on Wednesday, adding students and staff can make the “personal decision” to wear a mask or respirator.

On Monday, Premier Danielle Smith said the wearing of masks “should be a personal choice” and instead would focus on procuring more over-the-counter drugs to help with illness, rather than prevent viral spread.

“But we are not going to be mandating masks,” Smith said Monday.

“Obviously, we’re in post-pandemic mode,” LaGrange said Wednesday.

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The education minister’s comments came on the same day Alberta’s new interim chief medical officer of health Dr. Mark Joffe issued a statement about the increase of respiratory viruses in Alberta.

“Winter is historically the peak season for respiratory infections. Like other jurisdictions, Alberta is seeing an early rise in seasonal infections including influenza, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) and COVID-19, and is expecting a severe season,” Joffe said.

Click to play video: 'AHS says Albertans should put masks on as respiratory illness spreads'
AHS says Albertans should put masks on as respiratory illness spreads

Joffe said most of Australia’s influenza cases were in kids and teens, and children under 16 accounted for the majority of influenza hospitalizations. He anticipated the same would happen in Alberta.

“Over the last few weeks, Alberta has seen an increase in reports of symptoms such as cough and fever in schools and daycares,” Joffe said. “We are monitoring the situation in schools closely.”

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On Tuesday, Calgary Board of Education chief superintendent Christopher Usih said more Calgary public school students are sicker earlier this year.

On Nov. 15, just shy of 12 per cent of students were absent, up from nearly nine per cent the week before.

“This is significantly higher than what we would expect to see at this time of year,” Usih told Tuesday’s trustee meeting. “We are also experiencing higher levels of staff absences due to illness… The pressure of unfilled positions have increased in the last two weeks. ”

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Edmonton public schools saw a 13.72 per cent absence rate on Nov. 10.

Click to play video: 'Dr. Isaac Bogoch answers questions about masks, hospitals and children’s medication'
Dr. Isaac Bogoch answers questions about masks, hospitals and children’s medication

Usih said despite trying to hire more substitute teachers and support staff in anticipation of illnesses, he said upwards of 270 teaching positions and 100 support staff positions are unfilled each day. There are 249 schools in CBE.

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“This puts significant pressures on some of our schools who have to significantly change the organization of staff and students to ensure that learning continues,” Usih said, noting there could be a transition to at-home learning.

CBE, Edmonton Public Schools and Edmonton Catholic Schools spokespersons confirmed none of their classes have had to move to at-home learning.

But a Calgary Catholic School District spokesperson told Global News they have had classes go online.

“Two classrooms have temporarily shifted to online learning this week due to higher absenteeism and operational challenges,” the CCSD said in an email.

Masking an option

Usih said there are ways to stop the spread of respiratory viruses like influenza, COVID-19 or RSV beyond the changes the school board has done to increase air filtration and circulation, where possible.

“We continue to encourage our students and staff to stay at home when sick, to wash hands and cover coughs and sneezes,” Usih said Tuesday. “Masking is also an available option for any staff member or student who wishes to wear a mask.”

LaGrange said the education ministry is in constant contact with school divisions to ensure they have the support they need to keep kids in class.

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“That being said, it is very different right across the province, so there is not a one size fits all for this situation. What I would say is that we’re going to continue to monitor the situation,” LaGrange said. “Of course, we’ll take guidance from the new chief medical officer of health.”

Joffe did provide some advice on masking as part of “daily actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses.”

“Wearing a well-fitting, high-quality mask can help reduce the risk of becoming sick and help protect others from being exposed,” Joffe said.

Click to play video: 'Edmonton Public Schools to seek guidance from chief medical officer of health on rising illness'
Edmonton Public Schools to seek guidance from chief medical officer of health on rising illness

Officials with the City of Edmonton are also keeping an eye on the respiratory illness situation in the city. But any mask bylaw on transit or in city-owned buildings is not on the immediate horizon.

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“City administration has not recommended consideration of a mask bylaw to city council recently,” a statement from the city said. “People are welcome to wear masks on transit and in city buildings, and since the most recent easing of health restrictions, we have been encouraging our employees to respect every person’s choice around mask wearing.”

In a change to the Municipal Government Act in April, municipalities must get approval from the minister of municipal affairs before enacting new mask or proof of vaccination bylaws “that would impact private sector operators.” But mask requirements on city-owned property could be put in place, with Rebecca Schulz’s permission.

The City of Calgary said it is not considering requesting that permission.

“The city is carefully monitoring public health advice to help keep employees and members of the public safe and will not be making a recommendation to reintroduce a masking mandate at this time,” a statement to Global News said. “We are encouraging City of Calgary employees to help fight viruses at home and at work by washing their hands regularly, cleaning as they go, and supporting the use of face masks as a personal choice. We encourage everyone in Calgary to take personal health actions to limit the spread of respiratory illnesses.”

Hospitals continue to swell with COVID patients

Alberta added 51 more people to COVID hospitalizations and 44 more people to the pandemic death toll in the latest weekly reporting period.

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As of Nov. 14, 1,141 COVID-19 hospitalizations were tallied across the province, with 40 in ICU. That’s an increase of 51 and four respectively.

Provincial data shows one new COVID ICU patient appears to be from each of the one to four and five to nine age groups. Eight infants under one year old were added to hospitalization numbers in the past week, as well as three from age one to four.

ICUs provincewide are at 88 per cent capacity, according to AHS information.

Click to play video: 'Children’s pain medication shortage compounding flu epidemic'
Children’s pain medication shortage compounding flu epidemic

Two acute care centres in Edmonton and one in Calgary declared COVID outbreaks in the past week.

On Thursday, three patients in one unit tested positive for COVID-19 at the Royal Alexandra Hospital. And on Tuesday, six patients tested positive at Villa Caritas, an acute mental health facility that specializes in senior care.

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Calgary’s Rockyview General Hospital had four patients test positive in a unit on Monday.

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