Edmonton

14 Alberta schools exempt from masking rules, province says

Fourteen Alberta schools have been granted school-wide mask exemptions, but Alberta Health won't reveal which ones.

Parents in eastern Alberta claim kids with mask exemptions face discrimination

Any Alberta school can apply to Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw for a school-wide exemption from masking. (David Bajer/CBC)

Fourteen Alberta schools have been granted school-wide mask exemptions, but the provincial government won't reveal which schools have exemptions. 

Masks are required for Alberta students in Grade 4 and up, and are recommended for kindergarten to Grade 3 students. Schools may also choose to create additional masking requirements beyond what the province requires.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw is able to grant masking exemptions for entire schools — including students, staff and visitors — that meet certain conditions. 

On Monday, Alberta Health spokesperson Jason Maloney confirmed 14 schools have exemptions but declined to share the names of the schools, citing privacy concerns.

He said any school in the province is able to apply for an exemption, and that Alberta Health has received 21 applications to date.

"To be exempted from the masking requirement by the chief medical officer of health, a school needs to implement an alternate COVID-19 safety plan," Maloney said in an email.

He said the plan, which is required to be posted online, must ensure that all students, staff and visitors maintain a minimum of two metres distance from one another while inside the school.

Individual students can obtain mask exemptions from a physician, psychologist or nurse practitioner if they are experiencing certain health conditions

Alberta Health is not tracking how many individual mask exemptions have been granted provincewide. 

Causing confusion

Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling said he knew that some school-wide exemptions had been granted, but he said his organization doesn't have details on how the province has made those decisions.

He said it's reflective of a broader lack of transparency and consistency in managing COVID-19 issues in schools throughout the pandemic.

Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling says allowing exemptions for some schools leads to confusion. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Schilling described the province's mandatory COVID measures for schools as the "bare minimum," and said leaving any further safety efforts up to individual school boards' discretion has put boards in a tough position.

"And then when you start getting exemptions for some areas or for some schools, that also causes a little bit of confusion because you could sometimes have schools literally across the street doing completely different things," Schilling said. "And that just adds to the stress of what everybody is going through right now."

Alleged discrimination 

Facing pressure from parents last week, Buffalo Trails Public Schools in eastern Alberta added a statement to its return-to-school plan specifying that students with mask exemptions will not be discriminated against or segregated.

Trustee Kara Jackson made the motion at a special board meeting on Friday, noting that it was in response to parents and others in the school community who complained to the board that kids with mask exemptions aren't being treated fairly.

"I really believe we cannot afford to not address these or ignore stakeholders on this matter," Jackson said. 

All eight trustees in attendance voted in favour of the motion to add the language to its back-to-school plan. Trustee Jessica Kaastrup did not attend the meeting. 

In an interview Friday, Buffalo Trails board chair Stephanie Spornitz said the motion passed Friday is meant to provide reassurance that students with exemptions will be accommodated.

The division has about 3,800 to 3,900 students between 27 schools, including an online school and various Hutterite colony schools.

Fourteen students have been granted mask exemptions, according to the division's superintendent. 

Shannon Gilchrist was among the parents calling for the school board to address allegations that students with exemptions are being treated poorly at schools.

Gilchrist, who chairs the parent council for Wainwright Elementary School, said concerned parents sent about 160 letters to the board. 

"It's a win for us and for the students that have been feeling neglected and segregated and basically bullied," she said. 

Gilchrist said her own children do not have mask exemptions, but thinks masks should be voluntary for all students.

Alberta Education spokesperson Heather Holmes said the ministry is aware of the complaints in the division, and is working with the school board to ensure the issues are resolved.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paige Parsons is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has specialized in justice issues and city hall, but now covers anything from politics to rural culture. She previously worked for the Edmonton Journal. She can be reached at paige.parsons@cbc.ca.

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