Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools board chair Joe Becigneul said he was concerned when the plan to return to schools was first announced in July.
Becigneul said he feels optimistic that the government and Deena Hinshaw, chief medical officer of health for the province, are watching the numbers and adjusting the school reopening plan as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses.
“I’m confident that if our active cases don’t improve between now and Sept. 1, under the watchful eye of Dr. Hinshaw, they may make other adjustments to the plan,” Becigneul said.
On Tuesday morning, the province announced masks will be mandatory for students in Grades 4 to 12 as well as school staff. Exemptions will be made for students and staff who are unable to wear a mask due to medical or other needs.
“To be clear, masks are not required in the classroom when students are seated. However, they are required in hallways and any shared places where students, staff or teachers may not be able to maintain the recommended physical distancing requirements,” Hinshaw said.
Masks will be optional for younger students in Kindergarten through Grade 3.
Mask use for younger children is a challenge due to difficulties with proper fit and compliance. In addition, evidence shows children under 10 may be less likely than older children or adults to transmit COVID-19.
Hinshaw said the decision was made because younger children are thought to be at a lower risk of transmitting the disease.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said it is difficult to outfit younger children with masks because of concerns around the proper fit of masks and compliance with the rules.
Hinshaw and the rest of the Alberta Health team have been monitoring jurisdictions around the world to help learn the safest way to get students back to school.
“We will continue to watch (other jurisdictions') experiences closely and monitor our own. If needed, we will continue to update public health advice for schools based on best available evidence. This is part of living in the new normal ... with COVID-19. (We) must be agile, adaptive and guided by the evidence as it emerges,’ Hinshaw said.
LaGrange said right now the best evidence shows masks will help keep school safe.
"Emerging evidence has made it clear that masks can play an important role in limiting the spread of COVID-19 in our schools," LaGrange said.
"These new safety measures will help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our schools, and we will continue to work with our school authorities to ensure they are equipped for a successful start to the school year."
To help cover the costs, the provincial government will be providing two reusable masks for every student, teacher, staff member and bus driver in the province, totalling around 1.6 million masks. The schools will also be provided with single-use masks for backups in case reusable masks are lost or forgotten.
"Given the fact that we are now mandating masks for students and staff, we have now gone the extra measure of providing those resources and paying for those resources," LaGrange said.
Each school will be given two contactless thermometers, and the province has purchased 466,000 litres of hand sanitizer to be shared throughout schools.
Face shields will also be provided to teachers, staff and bus drivers thanks to a donation from the Canadian Shield and some provincial government funding but LaGrange said the shields are not a replacement for face masks.
“While they feel can help reduce exposure, they are not equivalent to masks. That is why staff who choose to wear a face shield will still be required to wear a mask.”
Becigneul said he hopes the province continues to adapt to the changes in the pandemic and continues to listen to health professionals to make the most informed decisions possible. A more detailed plan of the Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools school relaunch plan will be released in the coming days.