Some Edmonton parents say they are shocked, baffled and angry that the Alberta government is eliminating mask mandates in schools.
When the restriction ends next Monday, Alberta’s education minister says school boards will also lack the authority to adopt their own masking rules — a change from last year.
Starting Feb. 14, children aged 12 and under will be exempt from all masking requirements. In schools, masking requirements will be lifted for students of all ages.
On March 1, if hospitalization numbers continue to trend down, all remaining provincial school requirements, including cohorting rules, will also be lifted.
The Tuesday announcement prompted calls from parents, teachers and Edmonton’s public school board to release the evidence that informed the decision as Alberta COVID-19 hospitalizations hover near record highs.
Edmonton parent Eddy Kent says he believes the decision was driven by politics, as the premier wanted to be seen taking a significant step.
“The kids, I think, have just been offered up as a sacrifice because the premier thinks that these children won’t be as affected,” Kent said.
Mask requirements for children have become deeply divisive, prompting protests in some rural schools, and driving parents to plead with school boards to axe the requirement.
Public health experts say it is one of several effective strategies to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
More than a dozen members of the United Conservative Party caucus have long been pushing Premier Jason Kenney for less intrusive public health measures. Kenney, whose popularity has slumped in public opinion polls, faces a party leadership review on April 9.
Some other provinces are also loosening restrictions, including Saskatchewan, where school masking will become optional at the end of February.
McKenzie Kibler, an issues manager for the health minister, said in a statement the seven-day averages of COVID-19 test positivity rates are dropping, and wastewater surveillance shows a decrease in virus levels in most regions of the province.
He said health restrictions can have an adverse effect on children.
“Given the very low threat that COVID-19 poses to the health of children it is no longer justifiable to continue to disrupt and restrict the normal lives of kids,” Kibler wrote.
Critics say ditching the mask mandate ignores lower vaccination rates among school-age children, and that children can transmit it to people who are more vulnerable.
As of Tuesday, 46 per cent of children aged 5 to 11 had received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and nearly 19 per cent of children in that age group had received two doses. Children under five cannot be immunized.
Edmonton parent Nicola Doherty said she was shocked to hear the mask announcement on the same day Alberta reported 13 more COVID-19-related deaths.
Doherty has three children, ages 12, 14 and 16.
She said the government is sending mixed messages by shipping 16.5 million masks to all students in the province, then, days after they arrived, announcing they’re no longer needed.
“It’s so soon,” Doherty said. “And why? Why now?”
Her 12-year-old daughter still plans to wear a mask to school, she said.
Doherty worries it will lead to her kids missing more school, and their parents missing more work.
Kent, who has a 13-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, said he doesn’t know how to justify the change to his kids.
Kent says removing mask mandates from a demographic with low vaccination rates is illogical.
His kids are worried about whether their friends will be wearing masks, and whether those choices will cause social tensions.
School boards surprised by move
Trisha Estabrooks, chair of the Edmonton public school board, said Wednesday trustees were blindsided by the news.
“This is too much change, too quickly, and again — no consultation with school boards,” she said.
Some families who chose to shift their children back to in-person classes with restrictions in place may feel wronged, she said.
The board will continue to encourage students to wear masks, she said.
Darren Mazutinec, superintendent of Westwind school division in southern Alberta, said there are no pandemic approaches that can please everyone.
“Whether you mask or unmask, our schools are safe havens,” Mazutinec said. “We want our students in schools learning with their teachers, and if they’re comfortable wearing a mask? Perfect. Wear a mask.”
Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling said with a provincial COVID-19 test positivity rate still at 32 per cent and limitations on who can be tested, the government’s move is premature.
He said Omicron is still causing staff shortages in school and the system needs more time to recover.