'Not realistic': Alberta parents say mandatory masks fail to address issue at core of concerns
'When I talked to parents the number one concern is class size'
Parent advocates say the province hasn't gone far enough to ensure the safety of students by implementing mandatory masks for all school staff and students from Grades 4 through 12 — and that the true problem of overcrowding persists.
The province initially announced their plan for school re-entry this fall in late July, but did not mandate the use of masks at that time.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange and the province's Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw announced on Tuesday that they would now be implementing a mandatory mask rule for all Alberta school staff and students from Grade 4 to 12.
"We do not expect boards, teachers, staff or parents to shoulder the financial burden associated with this new rule to assist with these new guidelines," said LaGrange.
The minister said the province would be investing $10 million to provide every single Alberta kindergarten to Grade 12 student and all school staff with two reusable masks.
"This will ensure that students who are required to wear masks will have them, and will allow for kindergarten to Grade 3 students to have masks should they wish to wear them" she said.
LaGrange said the money would also buy some disposable masks, contactless thermometers and 466,000 litres of hand sanitizer to be distributed at school districts based on population size.
Dr. Hinshaw said students who are now mandated to wear masks won't have to have them on all day, though.
"Masks are not required inside the classroom when students are seated and the teacher is distanced from the students," she said.
"They can still be worn if a student or teacher chooses. 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."
Provincial plan not enough: parents
But parent advocates said the province's plan isn't strong enough.
"Today was disappointing even for the low standards that I had set for today's announcement," said Carla Davidson, a parent and the founder of Project Safe September.
She said the new group was born out of frustration over the province's re-entry plan.
"Fundamentally, this government doesn't want to put any money into schools to make them safer. When I talked to parents the number one concern is class size," she said.
"If you have kids squished in a class of 25 to 30 kids per class, physical distancing isn't happening. I don't know if this government is labouring under some misconception about what classrooms are like these days, but it's just not realistic."
Barbara Silva is with advocacy group Support Our Students. She said supplying two reusable masks for staff and students is the "bare bones."
"Mask use is important, but it has to happen in conjunction with a cap on class sizes. It has to happen in conjunction with a dedicated school nurse," she said.
"We need to be cancelling all future standardized tests which congregate students and puts additional stresses [on them] during a time of increased stress as it is."
Opposition says creative solutions needed
Alberta NDP Education Critic Sarah Hoffman said it's time the province really considers creative solutions to capping classes at 15 students.
"The government regularly tries to say that we're discrediting Dr. Hinshaw. In no way am I discrediting her advice. I follow and respect her advice deeply," said Hoffman.
"And her advice has been that 15 is a reasonable cohort right now. So 15 students is a direct connection to the advice that she's been giving, and it's also direct connection to what's successfully working in other jurisdictions around the world."
Hoffman said that in their alternative re-entry plan, the NDP recommended using province's vacant spaces (such as university campuses) to house schools and cap class sizes.
"We know that there are a lot of rec centres and libraries and community buildings in municipalities across our province, so reach out to those municipal leaders," she said.
"I am confident that our municipalities would step up and provide additional space to help reduce the overcrowding in existing schools."
Hoffman said if more teachers aren't going to be hired to accommodate this, there are other solutions — including using education assistants to supervise a group while a teacher live-streams lessons to multiple classrooms.
CBE 'pleased' with mask mandate
The Calgary Board of Education said they recommended the use of masks — but did not mandate them — in their initial re-entry plan, released last week.
"We are pleased the government has provided this clear direction and additional support," it said in an emailed statement.
"We will adjust our plans and protocols to align with the current advice provided by Alberta Education and Alberta Health. Our schools will work with students and staff to comply with the new mask requirements."
The board said they are prepared to make changes to its plan again should that be necessary.
Bryan Szumlas, chief superintendent of the Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD), said the board was already planning on making masks mandatory for their staff this fall.
"Last week we had rolled out communication to our staff based upon our summer school experience that we would be going forward with mandatory masks for all of our staff," he said.
In late July, Alberta Health confirmed that three students tested positive for COVID-19 at a summer school hosted by the Calgary Catholic School District.
Szumlas said the district had also been hosting an online forum for families regarding re-entry measures.
"Looking at the initial data that we've received ... it shows that parents are very much in support of the government's announcement this morning," he said.
But, the superintendent said it wanted to acknowledge a continued message from Dr. Hinshaw.
"There is no risk-free approach for living with COVID-19," he said. "We need to prepare, and put in place as many of these measures as we can as we try to keep our students and staff safe in the world, to cope with COVID-19."
The CCSD has not yet released their full re-entry plan, but plans to in the coming weeks.