Shortly before Alberta Education told school boards they can’t make students wear masks, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health encouraged families to use masks this flu season.
A letter from both the chief medical officer of health and the senior medical officer of health released to parents on Wednesday stated that using a well-fitting, high-quality mask is encouraged, especially in crowded indoor settings.
“In the last few weeks, we have seen a large rise in cough and fever-type sickness in our schools. We are concerned that this influenza season will be more severe than we have seen in years, and that illness will continue to disrupt school, sports and upcoming holiday gatherings,” said Dr. Mark Joffe, chief medical officer of health.
“Wearing a mask can help reduce your risk of becoming sick and help protect others from being exposed,” said the letter which also stated that individuals should be supported regardless of their choice to mask or not.
On Thursday, the province announced that students don’t have to wear masks at school and can’t be forced to take classes online.
But if the chief medical officer of health announces health measures, those would prevail over the Education Act and associated regulations.
In a letter to parents, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said school authorities have sought clarity related to their ability to bring in health measures that may limit access to education, given there are currently no health orders to support these decisions.
“We hope that with this new regulatory change comes more predictable and stable circumstances, an increase in the mental well-being of our students, and the preservation of in-person quality learning opportunities for students,” the letter said.
Alberta teachers say the assurance the chief medical officer of health (CMOH) can impose orders that override the limitations imposed by the regulation is welcome, “but will only have force and effect if the CMOH can act truly independently and in accordance with the best medical information available.”
“Decisions concerning mask policy are best made by school authorities in response to local conditions and based on credible medical advice,” said Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling in a statement.
Alberta Education also says school authorities must continue to offer courses in person or at home, but the ATA says many schools are struggling to maintain in-person teaching because of widespread teacher and student illness.
“If schools have no choice but to implement online learning in response to severe staff shortages and limited availability of substitute teachers, they simply will not have sufficient capacity to offer in-person instruction at the same time, as is required by the regulation,” Schilling said.
Shawn Russell, associate superintendent at Chinook’s Edge School Division, said Alberta Education’s decision regarding masks doesn’t change the way things are done at their schools.
“We don’t feel we’re the medical experts. That’s why we’ve always taken that direction from the chief medical officer of health,” Russell said.
He said the government has put a priority on in-person learning, and Chinook’s Edge will work with its school to be prepared should issues arise.
“We certainly have seen an increase in absentee rates but we see that typically in November in a normal pre-pandemic year, maybe not the full extent we’re seeing now, but it certainly is cold and flu season.”