Edmonton

Edmonton school boards push for mandatory masking, isolation requirements

Pressure is mounting on the Alberta government to take more measures to protect students from COVID-19 when most schools resume in September.

Parents now lobbying school boards to add protections for students

Edmonton Public School Board Chair, Trisha Estabrooks, says the province should, at a minimum, mandate masking in schools to protect children from COVID-19 during the 2021-22 school year. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Pressure is mounting on the Alberta government to take more measures to protect students from COVID-19 when most schools resume in September.

Alberta's education minister and chief medical officer of health are holding a news conference Friday morning to announce "back to school guidance" and work to protect public health in schools.

Edmonton Catholic and public school boards have written letters to the province's education and health ministers, requesting the authority to mandate masks in schools and require people sick with COVID-19 to isolate.

"We have seen that 'personal responsibility' is not reliable as a public health measure and can force individuals into having to choose between maintaining their employment or maintaining their health," Edmonton public school board chair Trisha Estabrooks wrote in a Tuesday letter to the ministers. 

The letter, made public Thursday morning, pointed to the prevalence of the delta strain of coronavirus, Canada entering a fourth wave of disease, and vaccination rates short of those needed for herd immunity.

Almost all Edmonton elementary school students — children younger than age 12 — are ineligible to be vaccinated.

The board wants the same health measures that applied last school year to remain in effect this coming year, including daily health screening checklists and mandatory masks for students in Grades 4 to 12.

On Monday, a swath of changes were supposed to come into effect province-wide, but a government source told CBC that the changes would not be implemented at this time. 

The changes were supposed to be things like isolation following a positive test will be recommended but not required and free testing will only be done as required for patient-care decisions. Publicly funded testing centres were set to close.

Educators have been in limbo, waiting for the province to provide guidance for September's return to school under this new approach.

The Edmonton Catholic school board also sent a letter to the ministers on Wednesday.

The board is asking for mandatory masks for students in Grades 4 to 9, COVID-19 immunizations in schools and retaining the provincewide legal requirement for people who test positive for infection to isolate.

Parents call for school boards to act

Through emails, phone calls, tweets and protests, parents have also been putting pressure on the government and school boards. It's unclear what measures schools have the authority to take without the province's direction.

Jenny Huang organized an online petition to the Calgary Board of Education, asking them to mandate masks, offer testing and require symptomatic people to stay home.

The parent of two said she's lost faith in the provincial government and hopes the school board will step up to protect kids, even if complications from COVID-19 are rare in children.

"For them, [it] may be just a number," she said. "Maybe one kid or two kids will die. But for us, that's not a chance that a parent wants to take."

Lauren Sergy, who has two children in an Edmonton Catholic elementary school, said thinking about how schools will handle COVID-19 in the absence of testing and tracing is keeping her awake at night.

"How are they going to prevent massive school outbreaks? The teachers won't even know when there could be a sick kid in their class," she said.

Sergy would feel more comfortable with her children attending in person if they could keep masking, she said.

The provincial government released a preliminary plan in June that includes contingencies in case there "is a significant change in the COVID-19 situation," said, Nicole Sparrow, press secretary to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange.

The province will confirm the plan before the school year begins. Health guidance for schools is "being finalized" and will be released mid-August, she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also worked at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca

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