'A normal school year': Alberta's back to school guidance leaves it up to school boards to introduce masking and other measures

“Parents, students and school staff can look forward to a normal school year this September, which includes a return to in-person classes, field trips, team sports, extracurricular clubs, school celebrations and reconnecting with friends and colleagues,”

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Alberta’s government won’t be requiring masks or other COVID-19 restrictions in schools, instead leaving local measures up to school authorities.

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On Friday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced the province is delaying its much-criticized plan to end routine COVID-19 testing and mandatory isolation this month until at least Sept. 27 as cases and hospitalizations continue to increase.

When classes resume, masking will still be required on busses, but the COVID-19 measures students and staff became accustomed to last year – including cohorting, physical distancing and masking – won’t be in place unless local school boards institute them.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said a news conference school authorities have the authority to bring in additional local measures, and families will need to decide for themselves what precautions “make sense for them.”

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“Parents, students and school staff can look forward to a normal school year this September, which includes a return to in-person classes, field trips, team sports, extracurricular clubs, school celebrations and reconnecting with friends and colleagues,” said LaGrange. Hinshaw reiterated that the risks of COVID-19 to children are lower than for adults, and need to be considered alongside the negative effects of public health measures.

Beginning Sept. 7, the province will be offering vaccination clinics in schools for staff and students in Grade 7 to 12. Hinshaw said only about half of youth aged 12 to 17 are fully vaccinated in Alberta.

With the release of new guidance Friday for schools to manage and prevent “respiratory illness,” along with a tool-kit of information for parents, the government encouraged vaccination for eligible staff and students and steps including sanitization, proper hand hygiene, and opening windows and doors where possible to increase air circulation.

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Students and staff are still being asked to screen every day for COVID-19 symptoms, and they must isolate if they test positive or have symptoms.

Alberta Health Services (AHS) may step in to help schools experiencing outbreaks, but only if they hit a threshold of at least 10 per cent of students absent due to illness. Hinshaw said that has been a long-standing public health practice. According to the guidance document, declaring an outbreak could trigger voluntary measures such as masking or the cancellation of extracurricular activities.

AHS will not notify schools of positive COVID-19 cases, nor do schools need to notify AHS. Staff, students and their families are not required to notify schools of positive cases, nor is proof of a negative COVID-19 test result necessary for someone to return to school.

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When asked how schools will be able to prevent or contain outbreaks without notification about positive cases, Hinshaw said schools need to shift their approach to deal with not just COVID but other infectious illnesses.

Alberta Teachers’ Association President Jason Schilling said Friday the provincial guidance document addresses some of the ATA’s requests, but it could create confusing inconsistencies across school districts.

“The minister has now left school board trustees to make tough decisions and to take the heat,” said Schilling, who added the association is concerned about a high threshold for enhanced measures.

“Waiting for 200 students in a large city high school to become infected at the same time is a recipe for disaster that could easily be avoided with a lower threshold,” said Schilling.

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Schilling said provincial contact tracing measures should remain until a significant majority of students and the community are vaccinated.

Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd said at a news conference Friday he was pleased to see the government offer vaccination clinics, something New Democrats have been calling for, but echoed Schilling by saying Premier Jason Kenney’s UCP is abdicating responsibility and downloading the work of public health officials onto school administrators.

“The Kenney government is failing to keep Alberta children safe in their schools,” said Shepherd.

On Friday, Edmonton Catholic School Board chair Sandra Palazzo said in a statement the board is pleased with isolation measures and immunization clinics, and welcomes the ability to “implement health measures and procedures that reflect our schools.”

Edmonton Catholic will share its back to school plan with families on Monday, and is extending its deadline to choose between online or in-person learning until next Thursday at 4 p.m.

Both Edmonton Catholic and Edmonton Public Schools wrote to the government on Thursday asking for the ability to mandate COVID-19 measures like masking, mandatory isolation for positive cases and an expansion of the province’s immunization program.

Edmonton Public’s board has scheduled a special meeting for 2 p.m. Friday.

More to come…

lijohnson@postmedia.com

twitter.com/reportrix

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