Edmonton public and Catholic schools release back-to-school plans with differing mask requirements

Carol E. Corker

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Edmonton’s major school boards will require students and staff to undergo daily COVID-19 screening when most classes resume in September, but continue to take different approaches to masking.

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The Edmonton public and Catholic boards each released their re-entry plan Monday, outlining precautions to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 being spread this school year.

Similar to last school year, Edmonton Public Schools’ plan includes requiring masks for all students and staff whenever they are inside whereas in the Catholic school plan, Grades 4-12 will be required to wear masks in common areas and on the bus but masks are only “strongly recommended” during class time. The same rules apply to staff. Visitors are required to remain masked for the duration of their visit.

Younger students in Catholic schools will only be required to wear masks on the bus while it is “strongly recommended” at other times.

Both boards say there will be hand hygiene requirements for students and staff, enhanced cleaning, as well as isolation requirements for staff and students if they have core COVID-19 symptoms or test positive for COVID-19.

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The plan is also to find ways to restart sports, graduations and other extra-curricular activities although the details of how those will proceed haven’t been released yet.

It is unclear how many positive cases in classrooms parents will hear about this year. The province ended contact tracing for close contacts of positive COVID-19 cases last month.

“(Last school year) we had information coming in on a regular basis from Alberta Health Services of confirmed cases in our schools and we would follow up with letters to our families advising them of that,” Edmonton Public Schools superintendent Darrel Robertson said at a news conference Monday.

“We’ve been very clear in our plan, we will not have access to all that information this coming year. So when we become aware of a case of COVID in our schools, we will communicate it to our parent community but I would anticipate that there will be situations where we don’t have that information.”

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Last week, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said the government wouldn’t be requiring masks or other COVID-19 restrictions in schools, instead leaving local measures up to school authorities. Year-round schooling began in the Catholic division on Aug. 11 but the majority of classes in Edmonton start at the beginning of September.

It comes at a time when the province is seeing a rise in case counts. Last week the government delayed its plan to lift most of the remaining COVID-19 measures in part due to a rise in children getting sick in the United States.

Schools won’t have the same federal funding they had for the last school year. Edmonton Public Schools has asked the provincial government for permission to use $8 million from its reserves to cover the cost of cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer and extra staffing.

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Meanwhile the Catholic board says it should be able to afford its needs using the current budget.

“We feel that it’s well within our means and our existing operational budget to handle those demands,” deputy superintendent Tim Cusack said Monday, adding that fewer students learning online has eased some of the financial pressure.

Parents in both divisions have until Thursday to decide whether their children will be learning online or in person.

Both the public and Catholic schools have so far seen a decrease in the number of students who will be learning online compared to last year.

Robertson said about 60 per cent of parents have made their choice already and only about five per cent have chosen online learning. Last year as many as 33,000 of the division’s more than 100,000 students were learning online.

Cusack said the Catholic schools have 1,155 students, mostly in elementary grades, currently registered for online learning.

That’s about 2.5 per cent of their total population, compared to almost 23 per cent of the population last year, he said.

Roberson hopes that all students will be back to face-to-face learning by the second semester “but we’re going to see how this unfolds and how the pandemic progresses in the coming months.”

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the masking rule for school visitors

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