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Alberta education minister changes tune on masks when schools reopen

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Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange on Tuesday, August 4, 2020. Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

According to Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, it turns out "emerging evidence has made it clear that masks can play an important role limiting the spread of COVID-19 in our schools."

Who knew?

Those were pretty much the first words out of LaGrange's mouth as yesterday morning's news conference on revisions to Alberta's minimalist back-to-school scheme got under way.

As a result -- of intense public pressure, that is, not "emerging" evidence provided by Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw or the boffins at Alberta's health ministry as LaGrange implied -- teachers and students in Grades 4 and above will now be required to wear masks when schools reopen in September.

Exemptions and exceptions to the latest pandemic rules, however, will be plentiful. Moreover, classrooms will continue to be packed and COVID-19 will remain highly infectious.

Teachers and staff will be required to wear masks -- where two metres of physical distancing cannot be maintained.

Students will also be required to wear them -- in all shared and common areas. So, in Hinshaw's words, the rule will only apply "outside the classroom, or when activities inside the classroom involve close interactions. … Masks inside the classroom are not required when students are seated and the teacher is distanced from the students."

Students in Grades 1 to 3 won't have to wear masks, although they can if they want to. As all of us who have raised children understand, informed consent does not typically play a big role in the typical Grade 1 student's perspective, but whatever.

Anyway, don't worry about it. The province is sticking to its view small kids aren't likely to transmit the coronavirus. "Current medical evidence indicates that children under 10 may be less likely than older children or adults to transmit COVID-19," LaGrange recited, a view not necessarily universally shared by all experts.

Students in higher grades have to wear masks -- but will have the option of taking their masks off when they're seated in class.

And so on. Readers will get the picture.

Critics were quick to respond that the changes announced by LaGrange and Hinshaw yesterday seemed to be intended to look responsive to public pressure for a safe school reopening while doing as little as possible.

"In the absence of additional measures, mandating masks as a stand-alone initiative is an insufficient response which may in many cases add confusion for many students and staff," said Support Our Students Alberta communication director Barbara Silva. Critically, she noted, "it fails to address the issue of overcrowding."

But then, LaGrange went on, there will also be hand sanitizer, 466,000 litres of it, some face shields (thanks to a corporate donor, for heaven's sake), two hand-held thermostats per school, and 1.6 million reusable masks, enough for two for every student and staff member, plus some extra disposables at the door in case a student forgets to pack a mask with lunch.

And in case you thought the government was being cheap about this, the minister noted solemnly, the extra effort will cost an additional $10 million.

Indeed, you can expect to hear the government's social media troll team screaming about how NDP Opposition leader Rachel Notley's alternative school opening plan would cost an "unrealistic" $1 billion.

Never mind that this is government that just promised to give $7.5 billion away to a pipeline company for a pipe through Montana that stands a significant chance of being spiked soon after Joe Biden is sworn in as president of the United States. Priorities.

Remember as well that the United Conservative Party government just got finished giving away about 40 million non-medical masks at the drive-through windows of Alberta fast food restaurants -- those well-known dispensers of dietary and other health information, McDonald's, A&W and Tim Hortons.

How much did that cost, one wonders? Why didn't they keep those masks to use in schools, where they might actually get worn? And why wasn't that the government's first instinct? There would have been enough to give each student, teacher and additional staff member nearly 50 masks!

Yesterday's announcement establishes one thing, and that is that sustained public pressure can get even a government like the one run by Premier Jason Kenney's party to budge -- a little.

But the subtext of the message was don't get any more big ideas.

"Today's announcement," the minister said, was the result of the government "continuing to listen to expert medical advice." Hinshaw said much that same thing. It's the government, though, that gets to pick the experts.

Bevan Daverne, superintendent of the Golden Hills School District in Strathmore and president of the College of Alberta School Superintendents, who took part in the news conference via telephone, was quoted in the government's news release saying: "This announcement clearly demonstrates Alberta Education's willingness to take the necessary steps to support the safety of staff and students."

Well, maybe. But there are many Albertans who are not yet persuaded by that assertion.

It'll be interesting to see what they have to say in the next few days.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Government of Alberta/Flickr

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