Alberta government bans school mask mandates, online-only learning
Schools must always offer an in-person class option, new regulations say
No Alberta schools or pre-kindergarten classes can require students to wear masks to attend school, says a new provincial government regulation.
The rules, which take effect today, also prevent almost every Alberta school from shifting Grade 1 to 12 classes to a solely online format.
Kindergarten and pre-kindergarten classes are excluded and schools in sensitive settings such as hospitals may be exempt from the rules.
"Parents and students have told me time and time again that they want a normal school environment for their kids," Premier Danielle Smith said in an afternoon news release Thursday.
Smith's statement said new regulations "enhance educational choice" and require the education system to support that choice.
The statement says the government is concerned about the mental health implications of children missing in-person classes during the pandemic. It also says some children struggled with online learning during the past three years, and that an in-person option should help children keep up with their academics.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said in a letter to parents posted online Thursday afternoon the move will help provide parents assurance they can head to work while their children are at school in person.
I have heard from parents and students that they would like stability and from school boards that they would like clarity. <br><br>Today, Alberta’s government is ensuring all students continue to have access to in-person learning and family choice. <br><br>Attached is my letter to parents. <a href="https://t.co/WEj0Ae7dGb">pic.twitter.com/WEj0Ae7dGb</a>—@AdrianaLaGrange
The news release said schools and school boards were seeking clarity on what public health measures they could consider adopting.
The change comes as children's hospitals and schools are grappling with a wave of sick children and teens.
Doctors say pediatric emergency departments across the country are slammed with children showing up with respiratory and gastrointestinal infections.
Public health doctors have said influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19 are leading to a triple whammy of health challenges for children.
Should Alberta's chief medical officer of health decide to require additional public health measures in school to control outbreaks of disease, those orders would take precedence over the new school regulations.
Teachers' association questions how schools will manage during outbreaks
Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling said in a statement the government's solution to staffing shortages during outbreaks of illness is "unworkable."
"If schools have no choice but to implement online learning in response to severe staff shortages and limited availability of substitute teachers, they simply will not have sufficient capacity to offer in-person instruction at the same time, as is required by the regulation," Schilling's statement said.
The Edmonton public school division said leaders needed more time to study the implications of the decisions before commenting.
Last February, the Alberta government lifted mask mandates in schools. The families of five immunocompromised children and the Alberta Federation of Labour then challenged that government decision in court.
In October, a Court of King's Bench judge found the government's requirement to end mask mandates was "unreasonable" because the decision was made by cabinet and not the chief medical officer of health, who has that power under the Public Health Act.
The judge also found Education Minister Adriana LaGrange had not taken the legal steps required to prevent school mask mandates.
At the time, Smith said the government was looking at legal avenues to address this.
Smith campaigned for United Conservative Party leadership on the promise that children would never be required to masks in school again.
Alberta NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said in a statement the new regulations show the premier and education minister are ignorant of what's happening in Alberta schools.
"It is totally unrealistic to expect that school districts can staff in-person and online classes simultaneously with no additional resources," Hoffman said.
Earlier this month, absenteeism in Edmonton schools due to illness had risen above 13 per cent. The situation improved after a five-day November break. On Wednesday, about 5.4 per cent of students were out sick.
As of Nov. 18, about eight per cent of Edmonton Catholic students were absent due to illness.
Parents question government
Orlagh O'Kelly is an Edmonton lawyer part of the group that represented the families of immunocompromised children who sought a review into the lifted mask mandate in February.
O'Kelly told CBC on Thursday, the new regulations are a step backwards.
"I'm disappointed because it's inconsistent with the position that was advanced by His Majesty the King and right of Alberta in court.
"They essentially created the exact same case all over again. We're back at square one," O'Kelly said.
Sara Austin, founder and CEO of Children First Canada said the news regulations put vulnerable children in a worse position.
"The government has a duty to ensure that schools are a safe learning environment and that includes the physical safety of our children. We are seeing high numbers of children getting gravely ill. My son is one of those children," Austin said.
She said at the beginning of the pandemic children wore masks to protect the most vulnerable people in society from COVID-19, and said that now is the time to protect children.
"Kids did their part…. But now is the time when we should be protecting our children. And our leaders have failed us. They have failed our children. They are not following the evidence. And it's very concerning to me as a parent and concerning to my child."
The new regulations apply to public, Catholic, Francophone, private and charter schools.
With files from Katarina Szulc