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Masks mandatory for rural Wood Buffalo students, recommended for Fort McMurray students

In Fort McMurray, the school boards are following the guidelines of the chief medical officer of health, keeping masks as highly recommended. However, the rural district is taking things a step further, mandating masks and keeping cohorts.

Rural communities don't have the same access to health care, says superintendent

Schools in Fort McMurray are recommending students wear masks, but they aren't required. (Fort McMurray Catholic Schools)

Students in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo will see different approaches to COVID-19 safety when they return to class, depending on where they live. 

In Fort McMurray, the school boards are following the guidelines set by Alberta's chief medical officer of health, keeping masks as highly recommended. However, the rural district is taking things a step further, mandating masks and keeping cohorts.

Nancy Spencer-Poitras, superintendent of the Northland School Division No. 61, said the rural schools will have mandatory masks for Grades 4 to 12. Masks will be highly recommended for younger students. 

The classrooms will also be cohorting as much as possible and large assemblies will be virtual. 

"Our communities have been quite supportive of this, because they … have a heightened awareness of COVID," said Spencer-Poitras. 

"Most of our schools are in isolated communities so they don't have the same access to health services and hospitals that you would in an urban areas."

Spencer-Poitras said one factor in the decision to have heightened restrictions was the lower vaccination rate.

As of Monday, 53.3 per cent of the eligible population in rural Wood Buffalo had their first vaccination, and 40.7 per cent were fully vaccinated.

"That did factor into the decision making," said Spencer-Poitras. She said the board is interested in bringing vaccination clinics to the schools.

Northland is also continuing to offer online education. Students in the rural area will return to school on Sept. 4. And the COVID restrictions will be reevaluated on Sept. 30. 

In Fort McMurray, there are 109 active cases as of Monday. More than 70 per cent of the eligible population has had their first vaccination, and 60 per cent are fully vaccinated. 

George McGuigan, superintendent of the Fort McMurray Catholic School Division, said the schools are excited to welcome students back. 

The schools are following hygiene protocols and sanitization that was in place last year, and students are strongly recommended to wear masks in common areas. 

"If the case counts start to rise substantially we will go back and review our plan and most likely at that point we would be looking at making masks mandatory for all our students in Grade 4 to 12," said McGuigan. 

"We know that the mental health and the teaching and instruction in the classroom was very difficult for students to have to be wearing masks all the time."

But he said everyone recognizes COVID-19 is not over.

'We're pretty nimble'

"It's a fluid back-to-school plan, one that can change as circumstances change," said McGuigan. "We're pretty nimble." 

McGuigan said two high schools are working with Alberta Health Services to set up vaccination clinics.

This year, students will be able to go outside for recess as they did in previous years, said McGuigan. 

Sports teams, like cross-country running, golf and volleyball, will begin practising at the beginning of school. 

Jennifer Turner, superintendent for the Fort McMurray Public School Division, said the board is following the chief medical officer of health's guidance. 

Masks are mandatory on buses and highly recommended in school. 

"There is opportunity for choice in that," said Turner. "Staff will continue to model, to the best of their ability, having masks." 

The board is still offering classes online, and last year 500 students took that route. This year, about 120 students of the 6,400 students in the district have opted for online learning. 

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