Divisions differ on mask requirements as new school year starts

· The Pulse
By Jackson Spring
in the Regional Roundup

Classes are about to begin across the Edmonton region and school divisions are taking different approaches in their efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including whether students and staff will be required to wear masks.

The provincial government relaxed many public health restrictions over the summer — removing mask requirements for most places except public transit and school buses, capacity limits for social gatherings, and physical distancing requirements. However, some school divisions, like the Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB), have instituted their own restrictions, noting the danger the virus poses to children under 12 who are not yet able to get vaccinated.

EPSB is one of a few in the area fully mandating masks be worn by students, staff, and visitors in all areas of schools, with a few exceptions. The board's 2021-2022 Back to School Plan notes that a survey conducted by the board found that 96% of students and 92% of parents said masks were important for feeling safe, and that mandating them would allow schools to bring back activities that were previously suspended during the pandemic.

"With the extra level of safety that masks provide, we can reintroduce such things as field trips, volunteers and special in-person events," says the plan.

Some divisions are also considering a recent uptick in new cases, including among school-aged children.

The provincial government reported 7,074 new cases between Aug. 23 to 29, bringing the total active cases to 11,426, the highest since May 24. Of the new cases, 1,348 were among Albertans five to 19-years-old.

Edmonton Catholic Schools initially planned to not require masks for students from kindergarten to Grade 3, and only require masks in common areas outside of classrooms for the rest of students. However, on Aug. 30, its back-to-school plan was updated to make masks mandatory for all students in both classrooms and common areas.

"Since the release of our Back to School Plan on August 16, there has been a significant upward trend of COVID-19 cases among school-aged children," says an update to the plan.

St. Albert Public Schools and Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools also updated their plans to include stronger restrictions, including requirements that students and staff wear masks in all areas inside schools.

"In the past two weeks, daily COVID cases have tripled in St. Albert," St. Albert Public Schools said in an Aug. 30 press release. "As positive cases continue to rise across the province, our re-entry plan will now include masking requirements in an effort to make sure our return to school is as safe as possible."

A student working in a classroom. Though many school districts do not require them, all strongly recommend that students, staff, and visitors wear masks inside schools, especially in classrooms where physical distancing is difficult. (Courtesy of Halfpoint/Shutterstock)

Black Gold School Division, which covers the City of Leduc, Leduc County, Beaumont, Devon, Calmar, New Sarepta, Thorsby, and Warburg, is strongly recommending students and staff wear masks in school, but does not require them. Superintendent Bill Romanchuk told Taproot the division's plan was based on the guidelines set out by Alberta Health Services and the provincial government, and the discretion of parents and students.

"Masking is optional in schools and a personal choice," Romanchuk said. "Black Gold students, staff, and visitors will be supported in their choice to wear a mask, or not, when at school."

He added that the school board is prepared to make changes to the rules if the situation or AHS guidelines change.

STAR Catholic, which also covers municipalities in Leduc County; Evergreen Catholic Schools, which covers municipalities in Parkland County; Elk Island Catholic Schools; and Sturgeon Public Schools are not requiring students or staff wear masks.

Parkland County Public Schools requires masks for students while on a school bus and masks are strongly recommended, but not required, for students and staff in common areas and when physical distancing is not possible. Elk Island Public Schools requires masks for all students, as long as the percentage of fully vaccinated Albertans aged 12 to 19 remains below 70%. As of Aug. 30, 59.8% of that age group is fully vaccinated.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that masks were required for students between grades 4-12 in Parkland County Public Schools.