Alberta school boards urged to mandate masks since the province won't

Alberta school boards urged to mandate masks since the province won't

Updated: 4 months, 13 days, 19 hours, 21 minutes, 12 seconds ago

There are new calls for Alberta school boards to bring in their own mask mandates as tens of thousands of schoolchildren are at home sick and pediatric hospitals are hit by a wave of respiratory illnesses, including influenza, RSV and COVID-19.

The president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, Gil McGowan, sent a letter to boards around the province this week calling on them to take action and impose their own temporary masking rules.

"They are literally the last hope and last line of defence for kids and parents and staff in the schools," said McGowan, noting Premier Danielle Smith has made it clear she has no intention of reintroducing masking in schools.

"The school boards may not like it, but it's clear that help is not on the way from the UCP. And so the school boards have this power to introduce temporary mask mandates and they need to use it."

The Calgary Board of Education, which has resumed publishing daily absenteeism rates, is reporting 14,654 of its students were out sick as of Wednesday. That's 11.4 per cent. The CBE said it is prepared to move some grades or classes to at-home learning if necessary.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says school boards are 'literally the last hope and last line of defence' for school staff, students and their families. (Manuel Carrillos/CBC)

In the Calgary Catholic School District, 35 per cent of its schools have absenteeism rates greater than 10 per cent. Two classes have shifted temporarily to online learning.

The most recent statistics from the Edmonton Public School Board show that, as of Nov. 7, more than 13 per cent of its students were off sick.

The Edmonton Catholic School Board is reporting an illness absence rate of less than 10 per cent.

Parents worried

A spokesperson with Support our Schools, an advocacy group, said parents are concerned about the potential for returning to virtual learning.

"I think masking is just a reasonable, effective, temporary measure to achieve the means of keeping them in school," said Wing Li.

She worries time is being wasted with the public debate over who has the authority to do this.

"We need action. We need someone to act and someone to do something, somewhere because it can't be sustained like this."

At a news conference Wednesday, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange repeated her government's opposition to any kind of mask mandate.

"We do not anticipate going to a mandate for … mandatory masking within our schools. Anyone who chooses to mask within the school, it's certainly a choice," she said.

LaGrange also suggested school boards need provincial backing to bring in their own mandates.

"School boards were not allowed to mask students in the past without a chief medical officer of health order," she said.

Nothing stopping school boards

"The minister's comments are extremely misleading," said Lorian Hardcastle, an associate professor in the faculties of law and medicine at the University of Calgary.

"The [chief medical officer of health] does not have sole jurisdiction over the issue of masking. Yes a CMOH can order masks. But so can other entities. Businesses can order masks. Schools can compel masks."

According to Hardcastle, school boards have broad authorities under the Alberta Education Act.

"There's nothing in that act right now that would prevent them from enacting COVID-related policies like masking as part of their general duties to keep students safe."

Lorian Hardcastle teaches in the departments of law and medicine at the University of Calgary. She says boards have broad authorities under Alberta's Education Act. (Colin Hall/CBC)

Hardcastle points to a recent court decision involving the AFL that found the province's decision to lift the school masking requirement in February was "unreasonable" and in breach of the Public Health Act.

The judge also found that Education Minister LaGrange caused "widespread misunderstanding" at the time when she wrote to school boards saying they could not impose their own mandates.

According to Hardcastle, the case highlights the only way to prevent school boards from mandating masks is to enact a new regulation, something that hasn't been done.

"[LaGrange] can't do that by saying at a press conference that you need our permission. She needs to do it through formal legal channels. So a regulation under the education act is the way to do it," she said.

What is unclear, though, is whether school boards have the time or motivation to bring in their own rules. Hardcastle said the province could move to enact such a regulation very quickly.

CBC News asked the large school boards in Calgary and Edmonton whether they're considering bringing in mask mandates. None of them indicated any immediate plans to do so.

The Edmonton Public School Board has been the most vocal on the issue of masks. This week it called on the province to implement masking and other health measures when a school is on respiratory outbreak status.

Trustees also want the province to provide thresholds to determine when addition protocols, including mandatory isolation and masking, should be put in place in schools.

The CBE pointed to its website and renewed effort to report daily absence rates. 

"Students and staff can continue to make their own decisions regarding masking," the site reads.

The Calgary Catholic School District said it continues to review its safety response. It has a number of measures in place, and it supports "personal mask-wearing choice."

And a spokesperson for Edmonton Catholic Schools told CBC News "the health, safety and well-being of our students and staff" are the board's top priority, and it takes guidance from the province and Alberta Health Services.

"Families who prefer sending their children in masks continue to do so, and we have a supply of masks readily available at schools," a spokesperson said.