Alberta Premier Danielle Smith holds her first press conference in Edmonton on October 11, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Edmonton’s public school board asks province to allow mask mandates during outbreaks

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?”

School officials told the 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 school outbreak information.

The spikes, however, are due to a wave of illnesses including COVID-19, the flu and the respiratory syncytial virus. 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.

Premier Danielle Smith has been critical of mask rules in schools, saying they adversely affected the mental health, development and education of students.

“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.”

She 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.”

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