Most St. Albert students will have to mask up in school this fall after all as local school boards stare down a growing fourth wave of COVID-19.
The St. Albert Public, Sturgeon Public, and Greater St. Albert Catholic school boards published back-to-school health guidelines for COVID-19 in the week of Aug. 18 that said staff and students would not be required to wear masks in school under most circumstances — a policy in line with provincial protocols issued earlier this month.
On Aug. 30, less than 24 hours before some GSACRD students were set to return to school, St. Albert Public and GSACRD issued new rules saying students and staff would have to wear masks in schools under some circumstances after all.
In an Aug. 30 email to parents, St. Albert Public Schools officials said students and staff will now have to wear masks while in school buildings and on buses unless eating, drinking, or exercising. Students will not have to wear masks outdoors and will be allowed by teachers to remove masks in class under some circumstances (e.g. when at their desks working quietly). Mask exemptions are available under the Alberta Human Rights Act. Under the old rules issued Aug. 20, mask use was only required on buses, for visitors, and for staff working closely with others for long periods.
GSACRD released its new mask rules during a board meeting Aug. 30. Masks are now required for staff and students in common areas and on buses and for pre-kindergarten-to-Grade 3 students when mixing cohorts. Students can get a medical exemption to not wear a mask. The old Aug. 19 rules only required masks on buses (as per provincial orders).
The Conseil scolaire Centre-Nord issued its back-to-school guide Aug. 24. Under it, students will have to wear masks while riding on or travelling to and from a bus. Grades K-6 students have to be masked in common areas and have to stick to class cohorts outside. While the guide did not mention staff, corporate affairs director Laura Devaney said the mask rules also apply to staff.
Sturgeon Public does not require mask use except on buses as of Aug. 31.
COVID surge prompts reversal
St. Albert Public board chair Glenys Edwards said the board has restored its mask mandate because of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in the St. Albert region. (Alberta Health Services reported 65 cases in St. Albert when the board issued its back-to-school guide Aug. 19, and 115, or nearly double that number, on Aug. 30. St. Albert had just three cases on July 2.) St. Albert residents also frequently visit Edmonton, which has also seen a COVID surge.
“Reinstating the masking mandate is the right intervention for this time,” she said, as masks are an effective way to limit the spread of COVID.
"What we’re trying to do is ensure our schools can stay open and our students and staff can stay safe.”
Edwards said the board is requiring masks everywhere in school, as schools are too crowded to allow for physical distancing. While the board did try to co-ordinate policies with its neighbours, without a provincial mask order, everyone ended up going their own way.
The email said St. Albert Public’s mask mandate would be reviewed at the end of September based on case counts.
GSACRD superintendent Clint Moroziuk and assistant superintendent Cathy Giesbrecht said their board’s shift on masks was also prompted by the recent COVID surge.
When asked why the GSACRD is not requiring masks in classrooms (where students will spend most of their time), Giesbrecht and Moroziuk said this is a compromise measure that balances the risks of COVID with the stress caused by wearing masks all day. Students are more at risk in common areas, where students are crowded together and speaking loudly, than in class, where teachers can order mask use if students have to mix.
Giesbrecht and Moroziuk said GSACRD hopes to phase out its mask mandate at some point.