Face masks will be mandatory for all staff and nearly all students in Alberta schools when they return to school in September, according to changes to the province’s plan for the resumption of classes.
“Emerging evidence has made it clear that masks can play an important role in limiting the spread of COVID-19 in our schools,” Education Minster Adriana LaGrange said at a joint news conference Aug. 4 with Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw.
The Alberta government will provide two reusable masks for each Grade-4-to-12 student, as well as all teachers, administrators, staff members and bus drivers in the province − about 1.6 million reusable masks in total.
Mask use will be mandatory for staff and teachers in all settings where physical distancing cannot be maintained. Students will be expected to wear masks in hallways and on buses, but not when they’re seated at their desks during class time.
“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.”
Exemptions will be made for students and staff who are unable to wear a mask due to medical or other needs, the provincial government said.
Mask use for Kindergarten-to-Grade-3 students will continue to be optional. Mask use for younger children is a challenge due to difficulties with proper fit and compliance.
Hinshaw told reporters that evidence shows children under 10 may be less likely than older children or adults to transmit COVID-19.
Each school will also be provided with two contactless thermometers to monitor students and staff for fever, face shields for all teachers, school staff and bus drivers, and 466,000 litres of hand sanitizer as required. The additional hygiene supplies for schools will cost the government about $10 million.
“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,” LaGrange said.
What school re-entry will look like locally is up to each individual school division.
The Alberta government announcement came less than an hour before the Edmonton Catholic School Division provided more detail on its own school re-entry plan for its 44,000 students and 5,000 staff at 95 schools.
“The sad reality of COVID-19 is that some students and staff may become infected with the virus,” Robert Martin, ECSD superintendent, told reporters. “We’ll be working daily with Alberta Health Services and the chief medical officer to ensure our division is doing everything possible to prevent this from happening.”
Among the provisions in Edmonton Catholic schools are increased hygiene measures, pre-packaged food only in cafeterias, and no use of microwaves, vending machines or student lockers.
Kindergarten-to-Grade-9 schools will be closed campuses to protect student health.
Students will remain in the same classroom during the day, with teachers rotating from room to room.
Edmonton’s Catholic and public school divisions had previously announced that starting this fall, high school students will have a quarterly schedule instead of the current semester system at most schools, in an effort to maintain a closed cohort of students.
ECSD hopes to have small groups in separate cohorts participate in school masses or celebrations. Those details are still being worked out based on social distancing requirements.
Online learning, which began in the spring, will continue to be available for students whose parents have chosen to have their kids not return to the classroom.
Parents will be surveyed this week on what option they prefer, which will be used to determine staffing levels in the Edmonton Catholic division. At the start of each quarter, parents will be asked to choose online or in-person learning.
“Understandably, there’s anxiousness for parents,” said ECSD board chair Sandra Palazzo. “But that said, many of them understand and would like to see all of their children back in schools. However, some of them are not quite comfortable.”
The Alberta government’s announcement did not include additional funding for school divisions to pay for COVID mitigation.
LaGrange said school authorities can expect an overall increase of $120 million, compared to last year. She also noted the $250 million announced last month towards infrastructure maintenance and renewal in schools. The government says school divisions used $15 million towards COVID-19-related upgrades.
LaGrange said school divisions will also be able to use money in their reserves, she said, noting that there is $363 million in school boards’ reserves across the province.
Alberta’s NDP Opposition has announced its own plan for school re-entry, laying out 15 recommendations including the hiring of thousands more teachers, capping class sizes at 15 students and covering the cost of personal protective equipment. The cost of the proposal is $1 billion.
For the Edmonton Catholic School Division, COVID-19 precautions will cost between $4 million and $5 million – including additional personal protective equipment, hygiene supplies and the potential hiring of additional staff – which will come from the division’s reserves, estimated at $7 million.
Palazzo said it’s difficult to determine if additional staff will be hired at this point because parents have yet to make that choice of in-person or online learning for their kids. This also applies to the potential need for substitute teachers as cold and flu season approaches.
However, Palazzo said she’s confident the provincial government will help if needed.
“In the end, if the money is there, they will provide divisions with that extra money that is required …. That being said, our board will continue to advocate for financial support in our response to COVID.”
The Edmonton Catholic School Division is also in talks with the City of Edmonton on joint use of facilities for school athletics, to help maintain physical distancing and student cohorts.
“We remain responsive to honouring the integrity of the safety and mitigating risks for students, staff and our families,” said deputy superintendent Tim Cusack. “Ultimately it’s the numbers game of how many are choosing online, how many are choosing in-person return, and redeploying assets and staff accordingly. That’s our work in the next couple of weeks.”
Cusack said the ECSD’s re-entry plan – along with those of other school divisions – remains fluid depending on the progression of the COVID-19 virus and the guidelines of Alberta Education and the chief medical officer.
“It’s one of those things where ‘How do you respond to what’s unknown and uncertain?’” he said. “You make the best plan possible, and you realize it is a living document and when we have to pivot, we’ll pivot.”
As of Aug. 4, there are a total of 11,146 cases of COVID-19 in Alberta, 1,191 of them are active. The province reports 85 people are being hospitalized for COVID-19 and there have been 201 deaths.