Earlier today (Tuesday) Alberta’s Education Minister Adrianna LaGrange and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw provided an update on the public health measures being taken for a safe return to school.
The early announcement of a return to school plan under scenario one was made on July 21, giving parents, students and teachers two weeks to process and plan for near-normal operations in the fall with some health and safety protocols in place. The initial return to school plan and protocols being implemented did not include making face coverings mandatory in schools across the province.
During this morning's update, Education Minister Adrianna LaGrange acknowledged the uncertainty that many are feeling towards the previously announced scenario one plan, and she further outlined additional safety measures being put forth by the province.
LaGrange says that every single day we learn more about COVID-19 and this is why the province has committed to refining the guidelines to reflect current medical evidence.
Since the return to school announcement was made two weeks ago, COVID-19 cases have been on the rise across the province. Minister LaGrange says that while continuing to work with Alberta's Chief Medical Officer and provincial health authorities the province now sees the benefits of implementing mandatory mask usage for students in grades four to 12, as well as all teachers and staff.
She says "The safety and well being of our staff and our students continue to be my number one priority. After continuing to work with Dr. Deena Hinshaw's team and Alberta Health, emerging evidence has made it clear that masks can play an important role in limiting the spread of COVID-19 in our schools."
LaGrange stated that students will be required to wear masks in all shared and common areas such as hallways and on buses, as well as any situation where students and staff aren't able to maintain two metres apart. However, exemptions will be made for students and staff who are unable to wear a mask due to medical or other needs.
Lagrange says that mask usage will continue to be optional for students in grades three and younger, acknowledging the challenges that younger children may face in finding a proper fit as well as their ability to comply with proper mask safety.
Dr. Hinshaw stated that evidence shows that children under ten may be less likely than older children or adults to transmit COVID-19, and this was also a factor in determining the age requirements.
Hinshaw says "After reviewing the literature, I believe that requiring masks in all staff and in all children in grades four and above is essential to limiting the spread within schools and protecting the health of everyone involved."
Hinshaw goes on to say that "Emerging evidence shows that children who are ten or older may be more likely to transmit COVID-19 than younger children." She also reiterated that the older age groups are further along in their development, and better able to wear masks safely and effectively.
The province has committed to equipping each student in grades four to 12 with two reusable facemasks as an extension of this morning's announcement.
School staff will also receive one reusable face shield for their use in the schools, to wear at their discretion in addition to a face mask.
About 466,000 litres of hand sanitizer will also be distributed between all school authorities and each school will receive two contactless thermometers to assist with managing student and staff health.
School authorities remain flexible and are preparing for any changes between the three scenarios outlined in the provincial school re-entry plan. Changes to scenarios will be determined by Alberta Education and will be made as necessary.