Masks for Alberta schools still under review, province's top doctor says

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health says masks in schools are still under review as the province assesses evidence from around the world.

'Our guidance for schools will continue to evolve in the days ahead'

Safety measures for the province's back-to-school plan is an ongoing process, according to Alberta's chief medical officer of health. (Art Raham/CBC)

Alberta's Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, says masks in schools are still under review.

On Tuesday, the province unveiled its back-to-school plan, which included a number of public health measures like grouping students into cohorts and maintaining physical distancing.

But Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said mask-wearing would not be mandated for either staff or students, although changes would be made as required.

"From what Dr. Hinshaw has been advising us, the data shows that particularly in young children that it is not something that is required," LaGrange said on Tuesday.

Some critics said the guidelines did not go far enough to ensure the safety of children and teachers. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi raised the possibility that the city would extend its new bylaw mandating mask use to schools.

On Thursday, the same day she warned Albertans of a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases, Hinshaw addressed transmission among young children and reiterated that back-to-school protocols were part of an ongoing effort.

"We are looking at the evidence around mask use in school settings, and our guidance for schools will continue to evolve in the days ahead," Hinshaw said at a news conference where she updated the province on COVID-19.

"There is still a lot of new evidence on school settings, and there are reports from international sources that we are carefully reviewing."

Hinshaw said young children may feel discomfort wearing a mask and could be prone to fiddling with it or touching their face — a significant factor in the spread of the disease — but that she didn't know if there was yet enough evidence to understand how children might react to wearing masks.

"Those are the kinds of things we're trying to get a better understanding of," she said. "It's really important that we try to think about all angles and potential consequences."

Hinshaw also said evolving evidence suggests younger children are less likely to transmit COVID-19. However, some children who contract COVID-19 may not show symptoms but could spread the disease to grandparents and older relatives.

"At any rate, we must all protect seniors in our lives," she said.

Adult-to-adult transmission will have to be closely monitored, Hinshaw said, adding that it is likely a greater risk than transmission among young children.

Nonetheless, Hinshaw recommended the use of masks for all Albertans.

"As a physician and as a parent myself, I encourage all parents across Alberta to include reusable cloth masks on their back to school shopping list this year. "

Students or staff who choose to wear a mask may do so under the currently-released guidelines. 

No new funding from the provincial government has been allocated to schools for the additional costs associated with adapting to the pandemic.

In July, the province began the second round of its mask distribution program, which saw 20-million non-medical masks handed out through drive-thrus, municipalities, and other partners.