School boards, ATA respond to Alberta’s mask, online learning policies

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Edmonton’s two biggest school boards say they welcome the “clarity” provided by the province’s new policies on masking and online learning in schools.

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Alberta’s United Conservative government announced changes to regulations Thursday that prevent school authorities from moving to online-only classes and state that mask-wearing can’t be a condition of attending in-person learning.

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Mask mandates haven’t been in effect in schools since February, but a recent Court of King’s Bench of Alberta decision found the provincial government acted “unreasonably” last winter when it lifted the school COVID-19 mask requirement. At the time, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange told school authorities in a letter that they would not have the power to require students to wear masks, but Justice Grant Dunlop concluded that the minister’s words were not a regulation, so they didn’t actually prohibit school boards from taking action.

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As schools have struggled with surging respiratory illnesses that have spiked student absenteeism rates this month, school authorities have been pushing for answers on what metrics would prompt the return of public health measures, and who should be expected to make the decision.

Both board chairwomen for Edmonton Catholic Schools and Edmonton Public Schools said Friday that the province has now given a clear answer on whether boards have the authority to implement health-related decisions.

“I think all Albertans now understand that it’s not within the jurisdiction and nor should it ever have been within the jurisdiction of individual school boards to make decisions that belong to health officials,” Edmonton Public Schools chairwoman Trisha Estabrooks said.

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Edmonton Catholic Schools chairwoman Sandra Palazzo echoed the sentiment.

“We’re looking to our medical officials to make these decisions,” she said.

Emily Peckham, a spokesperson for LaGrange, said Friday that the government’s intent is to give guidance on measures “that may limit access to education.”

“Some school authorities have recently considered implementing at-home learning due to high rates of staff illness and some interest groups have been calling for school authorities to implement mask mandates,” she said.

“Given that there are currently no health orders to support these decisions, we are ensuring a consistent approach across the province.”

Edmonton Catholic Schools board chairwoman Sandra Palazzo responds to new provincial government regulations on masking in schools and the use of online learning in Edmonton on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022. David Bloom/Postmedia
Edmonton Catholic Schools board chairwoman Sandra Palazzo responds to new provincial government regulations on masking in schools and the use of online learning in Edmonton on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022. David Bloom/Postmedia Photo by David Bloom /David Bloom/Postmedia

ATA underlines school staffing issues

Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling acknowledged in a Friday statement that the latest regulation changes offer school boards more clarity, but added that the government’s solutions are “unworkable.”

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“Many schools across the province are struggling in the face of widespread outbreaks of COVID-19, influenza and RSV to maintain in-person teaching because of widespread teacher and student illness,” he said.

“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.”

Estabrooks also said staffing issues don’t go away if an in-person teacher and an online teacher must be provided.

“In fact, it’s exacerbated, and so I would predict that could be a challenge,” she said. “We’re not at that point and I have full confidence in our superintendent that we’ll be able to manage and navigate this.”

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Student absenteeism rates due to illness have been lower this week, after days in early November when 16 per cent of students in Edmonton’s Catholic schools and nearly 14 per cent in public schools missed class because they were sick.

As of Thursday, absenteeism rates at both Edmonton Catholic Schools and Edmonton Public Schools were about four per cent.

But Estabrooks said Edmonton public is still waiting for more details on how health officials are monitoring the rates of illness in schools and what thresholds they might consider in terms of future public-health orders.

“Across the province, there isn’t a lot of transparency. In fact, there’s no transparency in terms of the number of outbreaks that AHS has declared in schools across the province,” Estabrooks said.

“We’re still in this pandemic and we’re still looking for some answers, some thresholds and greater transparency.”

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