Edmonton

Alberta premier defends new rules banning school mask mandates, online-only learning

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is defending new rules ordering schools to provide in-person learning during the current wave of viral illnesses, saying a clear, measured response is crucial for students and parents.

Alberta Teachers' Association says province needs to work with school boards to find staffing solutions

A woman stands next to a microphone.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, shown here in a file photo, is defending her government's decision to ban mask mandates in school, and require schools to have in-person learning. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is defending new rules ordering schools to provide in-person learning during the current wave of viral illnesses, saying a clear, measured response is crucial for students and parents.

"We need a normal school environment for our children, and we need to make sure that the classrooms stay open to be able to support our parents," Smith said at a news conference in Medicine Hat on Friday.

"That's why we made the decision that we did — to give that clear direction."

Her comments came a day after she announced regulatory changes saying school boards must provide in-person learning. Schools also can't require students to wear masks in school or be forced to take classes online.

The changes take effect immediately.

"Anyone is welcome to wear a mask if they feel that that is the right choice for them, but we should not be forcing parents to mask their kids, and we shouldn't be denying education to kids who turn up without a mask," Smith said.

She has said mask rules and toggling from online to in-person learning adversely affected the mental health, development and education of students during the COVID-19 pandemic and strained parents scrambling to make child-care arrangements when schools shut down.

That's over, Smith said.

"We're just not going to normalize these kind of extreme measures every single respiratory virus season," she said.

School boards have been asking for more direction as a slew of seasonal respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses, along with some COVID-19 cases, have led to high classroom absentee rates and have jammed children's hospitals.

In Edmonton, Trisha Estabrooks, board chair for Edmonton Public Schools, said the decision provided the clarity that the board was seeking.

"All Albertans now understand that it's not within the jurisdiction, and nor should it ever have been within the jurisdiction of individual school boards, to make decisions that belong to health officials," said Estabrooks.

She said the province has made it clear that any future public health order would supersede the new rules.

The in-person learning change applies to grades 1 through 12 in all school settings, including public, separate, francophone, public charter and independent schools.

Sandra Palazzo, board chair for Edmonton Catholic Schools, echoed Estabrooks in saying that the school divisions now has more clarity. 

"We also really appreciate that we continue to have those opportunities to have discussions with the ministry, should there be any extenuating circumstances that may arise," she said. 

"And [we're] also further pleased that the Public Health Act will take precedence over the Education Act should there be reason to take stronger measures."

The masking change applies to those same grades and schools, but also to early childhood services.

The Opposition NDP criticized the new rules, saying it's unrealistic to force schools to be all things to all students while also handling a wave of viral illnesses and not providing additional supports to do it.

Jason Schilling, head of the Alberta Teachers' Association, said the government needs to work with school boards to figure out how to make this work.

"You have schools that are struggling to staff the building, [they] can't get substitute teachers, teachers are sick, they're covering each other's classes, principals are covering the classes," Schilling said in an interview.

"And then to say if you go online, you are to still offer the same programming in person — we just don't have the people to do that."

Wing Li, communications director for public education advocacy organization, Support our Students, said it will be difficult for schools to offer hybrid learning without any additional resources.

"There are no teachers," Li said in an interview. "Pivoting online was mostly due to staffing shortages, which is worse now three years in."

Li said online learning is challenging for students but, when temporary and supported, can keep schools and communities safe from spreading illness.

"This is a quite aggressive use of the Education Act to enshrine an ideology," she said.

With files from Travis McEwan

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