Masks mandatory for Calgary public school students

Carol E. Corker

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The Calgary Board of Education is mandating indoor mask use for all staff and students for the start of the school year Sept. 1.

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In a letter to parents sent Wednesday, CBE chief superintendent Christopher Usih said the decision is based on “increases in COVID-19 cases and the vaccination rates for youth aged 12-19 in the City of Calgary.”

He added the decision will be reviewed before the end of September, taking into consideration directives from Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw and the province’s education department, as well as active COVID-19 case counts in the Calgary area. Currently, the region has 2,016 active infections.

The CBE also required mask use last year and plans to follow the same protocols, including exemptions, that were in use before the summer break.

“We wanted to make sure that our families were prepared and were coming into schools with the understanding we’re doing everything possible to minimize the virus transmission in our schools and workplaces,” Usih told Postmedia in an interview Wednesday afternoon.

“The decision was based on ensuring we’re providing the greatest level of safety.”

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Last week, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange announced the province would not impose provincewide mandates on masking, physical distancing or cohorting, instead off-loading those decisions to individual school boards. She lauded a “normal school year” when students go back to class.

In addition to masking rules, the CBE is requiring students and staff to screen for COVID-19 symptoms and stay home when sick. They are continuing with disinfection measures and are enhancing ventilation in schools. Cohorting will be in place for K-6 students, and unscheduled visitors and volunteers will be prohibited at the start of the year.

The public school board is also relaxing several health measures in place last year. Students will be able to use lockers and change rooms, and extracurriculars such as sports and band can take place, including on evenings and weekends. Some off-site field trips will also be allowed.

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As well, schools will not be notifying close contacts of positive COVID-19 cases, in line with direction from Hinshaw.

Some CBE students on a modified schedule returned to school Tuesday with similar measures in place, including mandatory masking in indoor spaces.

The Calgary Catholic School District has not yet outlined its plans for the upcoming school year. Their students begin a staggered return to the classroom Sept. 1.

In Calgary, 79.5 per cent of people aged 12 to 19 have been immunized against COVID-19 with at least one shot, significantly above the Alberta average of 67.1 per cent. Meanwhile, 68.7 per cent of these Calgarians are fully immunized, compared to the provincial average of 56.3 per cent.

Youth immunization rates vary widely across the city, however. In several areas of Calgary, more than 80 per cent of those in the age 12 to 19 cohort are at least partially immunized, with the city’s Centre North health region leading the way with 84.5 per cent uptake. But in other places, fewer youth have been vaccinated, including the city’s East health region, which has the lowest first-dose uptake at 64.2 per cent.

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In a bid to further boost vaccine rates among students, Alberta Health will operate vaccine clinics in schools for those in grades 7 to 12. Those clinics will begin Sept. 7 and will inoculate minors if they receive signatures on consent forms from a parent or guardian. The clinics will also offer shots to teachers and school staff, who are not legally required to be immunized.

Despite the high immunization rates, tens of thousands of CBE students don’t yet have any protection from vaccines, Usih said, including about 67,000 students under the age of 12 who are not yet eligible for shots.

“There are significant populations of youngsters who are still unvaccinated, including those who are not yet able to be vaccinated, those under 12,” he said. “Even for some of those students over 12, they might have siblings or family members who aren’t vaccinated due to age or other factors.”

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Opposition NDP Deputy Leader Sarah Hoffman criticized the province’s back-to-school plan for leaving decisions on health measures in the hands of school boards.

“School districts were left to fend for themselves,” Hoffman said, calling on the province to restore case reporting requirements and introduce rapid testing to schools.

Calgary mother Elissa Johnson said the pandemic has been difficult for her and her three children, including two in Grade 2 and Grade 4 who have returned to school on CBE’s modified calendar.

She said she feels the schools will be safe, but added her kids are disappointed to have to continue wearing masks.

“They’re having to deal with the constant struggles of having to communicate with the other kids and their friends without being able to fully see each other,” Johnson said.

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Twitter: @jasonfherring

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