Students won’t have to wear masks in class this fall — a decision that has some teachers and parents worried about the health of their kids during the pandemic.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province’s chief medical officer of health, announced new COVID-19 health protocols for schools at a news conference Aug. 13 just weeks before the start of the fall school term.
She also pushed back plans to drop the province’s few remaining COVID-19 health rules. Albertans will have to continue wearing masks on buses, taxis, and other forms of public transit, and to isolate for 10 days after testing positive for COVID-19 until at least Sept. 27 — measures the province originally planned to drop on Aug. 16.
Hinshaw said the province made this change due to new data on the pandemic. Alberta had 62 per cent more people in intensive care beds as of Aug. 13 than it had predicted (146 versus 90), and had seen rising hospitalization rates in youths in the U.S. She emphasized that Alberta had not seen a surge in youth hospitalizations due to COVID, with just seven Albertans under 18 in hospital due to the disease as of July 1.
New school rules
Unlike last fall, Hinshaw said the province will not require people to wear masks in schools this September. Students will still have to wear masks while on a bus. Schools will support any families that choose to keep wearing masks.
A new guidance document for respiratory illness in schools issued by the province Aug. 13 also dropped last fall’s recommendations on physical distancing, traffic flow, food and item sharing, cohorting, and visitors. Students will still have to check themselves for COVID-19 symptoms before school and isolate for 10 days if they show specific symptoms (such as fever). The document recommends regular surface sanitization and promotes hand hygiene.
Alberta Health Services will no longer inform schools about positive cases and will not require whole classes to isolate upon case detection, the document said. AHS might recommend cohorts, masks, and other measures if more than 10 per cent of a school is out sick and has similar symptoms.
Parents and students should otherwise expect a “normal” school year with sports, field trips, and graduations without restrictions, said Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange. Local school boards can impose stricter health measures if they want, but would have to justify such measures to their constituents.
Hinshaw said these new rules were made to balance the risk of COVID-19 against the mental-health impacts of closing schools and other, more prevalent health risks. She noted that about 0.5 per cent of youth hospitalizations last year were due to COVID-19 — four times less than those for falls and eight times less than those for anxiety disorders.
“We cannot prevent every health risk for our children,” Hinshaw said.
Hinshaw emphasized vaccination as the best defence for students against COVID-19 and called on all eligible Albertans to get their shots before school starts. The province will also offer in-school vaccinations for eligible staff and Grade 7-12 students starting Sept. 7 (with students under 18 needing parental consent for their shots).
Some 69.6 per cent of St. Albert residents aged 12 to 19 were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Aug. 12, AHS reported. That rate dropped to 49.9 per cent in Sturgeon County West (Morinville, Legal, Calahoo) and 46.5 per cent in Sturgeon County East (Gibbons).
St. Albert Public, Sturgeon Public, Greater St. Albert Catholic, and North Central Francophone school officials are set to discuss what COVID rules they will put in place this fall later this week.
Morinville parent Marjorie Kirsop said she isn’t concerned about the new rules, as three of her kids head back to class at Morinville Public, Four Winds, and Sturgeon Composite.
“In Morinville, the cases aren’t very high,” she said, and all but her youngest child are fully vaccinated.
Kirsop said her kids found it challenging to learn from home last year due to COVID and are excited to go back to class this fall.
St. Albert parent Stephanie Wiebe is concerned about the health of her Grade 4 daughter under the province’s new rules.
“The Delta variant is very dangerous toward kids,” she said, referring to the COVID-19 variant now sweeping North America, and none of the kids at her daughter’s school are old enough to be vaccinated against it.
“These kids are at huge risk.”
Wiebe said she hopes school boards will stick with the pandemic safety measures they had in place in September 2020, adding that it would be a good idea to continue mandatory masking until the pandemic is over.
“It’s just really scary for all us parents right now.”
St. Albert elementary school teacher Melissa Zawaduk said it was unfair of the province to put the responsibility and potential backlash of enhanced COVID measures onto school boards.
“I kind of feel we got thrown under the bus.”
Zawaduk said she is extremely happy the province will still require students with COVID to isolate, as that is an essential part of student safety. She personally plans to keep her mask on in class this fall to protect her students.
Mask up, says prof
The good news is that the province is letting school boards bring in additional safety measures, such as masks, if needed, said Noel Gibney, retired professor of critical care medicine at the University of Alberta and co-chair of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association’s COVID-19 committee, commenting on the province’s new rules.
“The bad news is it looks like the province wants everything to be continuing as if there wasn’t a pandemic on,” he continued.
Gibney said it is unclear how much more dangerous the Delta variant is to kids, as there is little reliable data on it. The U.S. has seen higher youth infection and hospitalization rates, but that could be the result of that nation’s lower vaccination and higher obesity rates.
Alberta should expect significant COVID-19 outbreaks in schools this fall based on global trends, Gibney said. The province was already seeing about 500 new COVID-19 cases a day as of Aug. 13 and is on track to reach about 2,000 a day by early September.
Gibney advised school boards to make masks mandatory in schools this fall and to ensure schools have effective ventilation systems backed by HEPA filters.
Visit www.alberta.ca/k-12-learning-during-covid-19.aspx for details on the province’s COVID-19 school plans.