Masks will be mandatory for all school staff and almost all Alberta students when they return to school in September, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange announced Tuesday morning.
The decision is among a sweeping number of adjustments to the school re-entry plan to ensure the safety of staff and students in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, LaGrange said.
“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.”
Some of the key details of the announcement include:
All teachers and staff will be required to wear masks in settings where two metres of physical distancing cannot be maintained.
Students from Grades 4 through 12 will be required to wear masks in all public spaces and can choose to wear them while seated in class.
Masks will be optional for younger students in kindergarten through Grade 3. This decision was made given indications that younger children are not a high risk for transmitting the disease, the province said.
Exemptions will be made for students and staff who are unable to wear a mask due to medical or other needs.
Testing efforts will be expanded to allow for speedier access to results when the illness is suspected in a school.
To help cover the cost, the Alberta government will provide two reusable masks to every student, teacher, school staff and bus driver in the province — 1.6 million reusable masks in total.
Schools will also be provided with single-use masks as back-up in case the reusable masks are forgotten or misplaced.
Each school will also be provided two contactless thermometers. School districts will share 466,000 litres of hand sanitizer.
Face shields will also be provided to all teachers, school staff and bus drivers, but LaGrange stressed that these must be worn in addition to masks.
LaGrange said the assistance to schools will cost the government about $10 million.
“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,” she said.
Alberta schools were shut down in mid-March when the pandemic took hold in the province. The government announced in July that it was safe to reopen schools in the fall, but masks would not be mandatory.
Edmonton and Calgary have since required the use of masks in public areas.
Inside the classroom
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, stressed that the mandatory mask rule is for common areas and that masks inside the classroom should be worn according to circumstances at hand.
“If students or teachers are interacting in a way that’s close and involves them working together, then mask-wearing would be expected,” Hinshaw said.
“If students are seated in their desks, working quietly and not moving around and the teacher is distanced from them, then mask-wearing is optional in that setting.”
Later Tuesday, both Edmonton public and Catholic school divisions are expected to release details about their back-to-school plans, offering a more in-depth look at how the K-12 curriculum will be delivered to roughly 150,000 students in the city this fall.
The province’s re-entry guidelines from last month called on school divisions to cohort classes where possible, implement physical distancing measures and stagger breaks.
Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said he would be monitoring Tuesday’s school division announcement closely.
Schilling said he would look for how the school divisions plan to follow guidelines without dedicated funding to limit class sizes under the government’s plan.
“So how will we be able to maintain as small as possible cohort … and be able to maintain [physical] distancing within schools that we know are quite large and over-capacity in some areas?” Schilling said Sunday.
The association, Schilling said, will also look at whether school divisions set aside money for a sufficient number of masks and hire extra custodial staff to deep clean the schools on a regular basis.
The Calgary Board of Education released its re-entry guidelines last Thursday, giving families a short-term online learning option. But the board cautioned online learning would not give students the same opportunities or support as in-person classes.