PEI

Minister won't say whether P.E.I. will lift school mask mandate

The Opposition is urging the P.E.I. government to maintain requirements that students, teachers and other staff members wear masks in Island schools.

Province has indicated it will likely ease remaining COVID restrictions next week

The P.E.I. government has not yet indicated whether it will keep a mask mandate in place in Island schools. This week UPEI and Holland College both announced they would keep their mask requirements in place for now. (CBC News)

The Opposition is urging the P.E.I. government to maintain requirements that students, teachers and other staff members wear masks in Island schools and on school buses.

The province has indicated it will likely lift a province-wide mask mandate on April 7, when it plans to further ease remaining COVID-19 restrictions.

During question period in the legislature Friday, Opposition Leader Peter Bevan-Baker pointed to four cases in the past two weeks in which Island children under the age of 12 were hospitalized for COVID-19.

The latest COVID-19 statistical report from the province shows 8,051 Islanders under the age of 20 have tested positive overall — almost a quarter of the population in that age group.

Bevan-Baker also cited studies suggesting as many as one in four children who get COVID could develop long COVID.

"That could mean upwards of 2,000 Island children living with long COVID," Bevan-Baker concluded, asking the health minister: "Is that number within your government's COVID risk tolerance?"

Absentee rate dropping, province says

P.E.I.'s public school system has struggled at times over the past few months to find enough staff to fill in for teachers required to self-isolate.

But on Friday, Education Minister Natalie Jameson said absentee rates are getting back to normal.

She said daily staff absences, which reached 17 per cent two weeks ago, were on average 12 per cent over the past week, "which is really not far off from normal staffing levels for this time of year."

P.E.I.'s Education Minister Natalie Jameson said any decision on whether to continue requiring masks in Island schools will be based on advice from the province's Chief Public Health Office. (P.E.I. Legislative Assembly)

She said student absences over the past week averaged 13 per cent per day.

But the province's most recent COVID update showed P.E.I. has been averaging 350 new COVID cases per day, including 236 new cases in a week among those under 12 years of age.

"We know that in the last few weeks cases have skyrocketed, and it's had a huge impact on the ability of teachers to be able to staff their schools," said Green MLA Lynne Lund.

"What impact do you anticipate that lifting a mask mandate would have on the ability to keep schools staffed?" she asked.

"At this point, I haven't indicated as to whether the mask mandate will be lifted," responded the minister, adding what has become a common statement for ministers in the government of Dennis King, saying any decision will "be based on the guidance of the Chief Public Health Office."

Jameson said staff from her department and the Public Schools Branch were meeting with CPHO this week, and she would have information from those meetings to share with the legislature and the public in future.

Both Holland College and the University of Prince Edward Island have confirmed they will keep their mask mandates in place — even after the province lifts its provincial mandate.

In an email to staff, Holland College President Sandy MacDonald said CPHO "strongly recommends" the college keep its masking rules in place.

The Greens have argued that if those post-secondary schools — which also have vaccine mandates in place — are keeping masks as a requirement, public schools should do the same, because many children still aren't able to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

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