Edmonton’s public school board asks province to allow mask mandates during outbreaks
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EDMONTON – Alberta’s second-largest school district is asking the provincial government for clarity on whether it can require masks when a school has a respiratory illness outbreak.
Edmonton Public Schools held a special board meeting Tuesday to discuss a wave of viral illnesses that is sending thousands of students home sick. The board decided to ask for a meeting with the chief medical officer of health, as well as the ministers of health and education, to seek medical advice.
“We are not health officials,” said Trisha Estabrooks, chairwoman of the school board. “We rely on the advice of health officials.
“We need to have some clear answers about what happens, what are thresholds in terms of when might we see a mask mandate?”
No one from Alberta Health responded to a request for comment.
Alberta Education said in an email that it would review the request and act appropriately with advice from the chief medical officer of health, but will not mandate masks for students.
School officials told the Edmonton public board that more than 150 of the 213 schools in the district have met or exceeded a 10 per cent threshold for outbreak status by Alberta Health Services.
AHS, the province’s health-care provider, has declined to provide outbreak information but schools across the province have reported spikes in absenteeism due to a wave of illnesses, including COVID-19, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.
The Calgary Board of Education said it had an average student absentee rate across the district of nearly 12 per cent last week due to illness and more than 15 of its 250 schools have had outbreaks declared.
Both Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary and the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton are dealing with a crush of patients, some seriously ill.
Health officials said this week that in-patient units at both hospitals are at or over 100 per cent of their normal beds.
Dr. Carina Majaesic, medical director of Stollery Children’s Hospital, said there are more patients and longer waits.
“We’re full,” she said, “but we also add extra space when we are full.”
Health officials have said the Alberta Children’s Hospital emergency department has seen more than 300 visits a day recently, compared to between about 180 and 220 before the latest surge.
“We have had a very challenging several days,” said Margaret Fullerton, senior operating officer with Alberta Children’s Hospital.
Fullerton said the Calgary pediatric facility is also full, but health-care workers are making it work.
Health officials in Calgary and Edmonton said teams are working closely with schools to deal with outbreaks.
Dr. Christopher Sikora, medical officer of health in Edmonton, said there is a lot of school absenteeism across Alberta due to the three respiratory illnesses.
“It’s reassuring to see that parents are keeping their kids home,” he said. “Staying home until you’re better is one of those big things you can do to help keep others from getting sick.”
Calgary’s medical officer of health, Dr. Karla Gustafson, said there are other ways to reduce the risk.
“It’s really important that children are vaccinated against COVID and influenza to help reduce that burden of illness,” she said.
Masks, they said, are also proven to be effective to prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses.
“It’s encouraged for people who do feel comfortable doing it,” said Gustafson.
Premier Danielle Smith has been critical of mask rules in schools, saying they adversely affected the mental health, development and education of students during the pandemic.
“We’re not going to be mandating masks,” Smith said Monday. “We’ve heard loud and clear from parents that they want a normal school environment for their kids and we’re going to let kids be kids.”
Estabrooks said that’s short-sighted.
“If we’ve learned anything in this pandemic, it’s the need to be nimble and flexible and respond to the situation,” she said Tuesday following the board meeting.
“This is unprecedented, to see this level of illness and these numbers, these high rates of illness among our staff and students.”
Estabrooks said she and other school trustees have heard from many concerned parents.
“The situation is critical that we are seeing in our schools,” she said.
“We are doing all we can as a division to make sure that message is communicated to decision-makers. And when I say decision-makers, I mean health officials. Health officials need to be making health decisions.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 15, 2022.
— By Colette Derworiz in Calgary