Rural Alberta parents and school staff question lack of mask policy

Unlike most Calgary and Edmonton schools where masks are mandatory this fall, it’s different in rural Alberta — which has some parents and teachers worried as COVID-19 cases spike again.

“The school division should be doing everything they possibly can to minimize cases among school-age children, especially those who don’t yet have access to the vaccine,” said Lauren McPherson, who has two kids attending elementary school in Rocky View Schools this fall. 

Rocky View is among the rural school divisions in southern Alberta choosing not to mandate masks this year, after the province gave school boards the power to implement their own COVID-19 health measures earlier this month.

“Masks, as we have heard from the province, are not mandated in our school. While they can provide one level of protection for students and staff as they learn and work, they also can provide barriers to learning and to teaching,” said board chair Fiona Gilbert.

“As we come back to school next week, students and staff who choose to wear a mask or choose not to wear a mask will be supported in that choice.”

Lauren McPherson says her two children will be wearing masks in school this fall, despite Rocky View Schools’ decision not to implement a universal mask mandate. (Submitted by Lauren McPherson)

McPherson said her kids will be among those masked up in school. But she wishes Rocky View had the same precautions taken by Calgary and Edmonton school boards.

“They’ve chosen to follow the science in making masks mandatory,” said the Airdrie resident. 

“Everything I’ve read from doctors say that bare minimum masks and cohorting will keep the numbers down. That would be the two safest options for these young children. So I just don’t understand why our division, which is the fifth largest in Alberta, would choose to do absolutely neither of those.”

Alberta has consistently recorded more new cases of COVID-19 than any other province in recent weeks. On Tuesday, 920 new cases and four additional deaths were reported.

Trustees in Rocky View voted at a special board meeting last week 7-1 in favour of not introducing a mask mandate.

“What we have found is that this is really a very polarizing issue and the anxieties and concerns on all sides of the debate are valid and real,” said Gilbert.

“And as we have heard from the chief medical officer as well is that there’s no one right path for everyone.”

But McPherson said the health and safety of the most vulnerable school-aged children should be the main focus of boards making these decisions. 

“Why would you not start the school year with those same measures that you had in place last year? You know, just to try and keep those numbers down? It’s mind boggling to me.”

District superintendent Greg Luterbach said that as the COVID-19 situation changes and cases rise within school populations in the district, the rules may change — but not necessarily for the entire district at once.

“There might be times where there are local measures put in place at a specific school or a specific community that might involve active health questionnaires or might be temporary masking,” he said.

A teacher and parent with Christ the Redeemer Catholic schools, which serves students in places like Cochrane and Canmore, said they’ve been let down by the school division’s lack of a mask policy. 

CBC News has agreed not to name the teacher due to their fear of professional retribution. 

“It’s really thrown us for a loop that there are, what we consider, a lack of protective measures in place this year,” the teacher said.

Fiona Gilbert, board chair for Rocky View Schools. (Rocky View Schools)

“I’m very worried and very anxious.… We’re really trying to weigh the the bigness of that day [first day of school], the importance of that day, versus our fears as parents due to the lack of protection.”

The teacher said the communication from the district to teachers has been “poor” and the decision was made without staff or parental input.

“I find it very difficult to comprehend why my family members who live in Calgary are more protected than my children.”

Christ the Redeemer did not return multiple requests from CBC News for an interview.

Dave Driscoll is the superintendent of Palliser Regional Schools, which serves K-12 students in rural areas in Lethbridge County, Vulcan County and Calgary.

He said masks will not be required in division classrooms, but students and staff may be asked to mask up in crowded hallways and other crowded spaces.

“If they want to wear a mask, we will support them. We will encourage it. We know that it’s a good practice, but we also know for some of our students and staff that the mask is interfering with their ability to communicate or even some of their mental health. So we’re trying to find a balance.”

Other rural school boards across the province, including Foothills, Parkland, Elk Island and Fort Vermilion, are among the dozens that have chosen not to mandate masks this school year. 

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