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Order saying Alberta schools won't have to enforce social distancing lands like a sucker punch

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Dr. Deena Hinshaw at yesterday's COVID-19 daily briefing. Image: Screenshot of Alberta Government video

Whoever it was in the Alberta government that decided it would be a good idea to risk springing the news on the public that COVID-19 social distancing rules won't apply to classrooms just hours before schools reopen was seriously mistaken.

The United Conservative Party government's "near-normal" back-to-school scheme was already highly controversial, assailed as inadequate to the point of negligence by many teachers and parents.

The Kenney government's army of "issues managers" and press secretaries have been hiding behind the skirts of the chief medical officer of health, insisting the September start had Dr. Deena Hinshaw's imprimatur and was based on the best scientific evidence.

Anyone who suggested Hinshaw -- inevitably referred to by UCP-friendly media as "Alberta's top doctor" -- was making political decisions to suit the government's rapid-relaunch agenda was trolled as a tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theorist.

The carefully nurtured if never quite official understanding that two metres of space would be maintained between all students and staff members was reassuring to many who were uncomfortable with the relaunch plans but wanted to believe the government was acting in their best interest.

So Hinshaw's initially unpublicized order Saturday that schools won't have to enforce social distancing when students are seated in their desks landed with the force of a well aimed sucker punch when it appeared in news reports yesterday.

Said the order: "An operator of a school does not need to ensure that students, staff members, and visitors are able to maintain a minimum of 2 metres distance from every other person when a student, staff member or visitor is seated at a desk or table."

The reaction was visceral, and frequently appalled -- especially since it came too late for parents to reconsider their decision not to keep their children at home.

"I'm stunned by this reversal of physical distancing in classrooms by @CMOH_Alberta," tweeted Alberta Teachers' Association president Jason Schilling. "The Strategic Advisory Council, which provides advice to CMOH still suggests 2m., so what gives? This goes against everything we've been told for months."

NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman, who was health minister in the Notley government, accused the government of changing the rules because there is no way its just-like-every-other-school-year reopening scheme can happen with social distancing rules in place.

Other comments were stronger, and considerably less polite.

Hinshaw's response at her week-nightly COVID-19 briefing yesterday that there had never actually been a three-metre rule and she just issued the order to make sure the instructions were clear, might be true -- although, if so, it hardly looks good on her in the face of growing public discomfort with her decisions.

This is starting to sound like that news conference last spring at which she told Cargill meatpacking workers it was safe for them to return to the plant where one of North America's largest COVID-19 outbreaks later took hold -- except now there are fewer Albertans inclined to cut her the slack they once did.

Regardless, it sure wasn't public relations best practice. Justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done, as the judge famously said, and whatever the intention was, the timing and the fact it wasn't formally announced makes this order look like evidence of an intentional deception.

Hinshaw's explanation that the order was supposed to be ready sooner, but got tied up in "processes and legal tools," whatever that's supposed to mean, didn't help much either.

You know you've got it wrong when even the political columnists at UCP-friendly Postmedia start arguing the uproar is "an ominous sign of confusion," as the Calgary Herald's Don Braid did yesterday, and suggesting that Premier Jason Kenney is "getting dangerously close to the point where a leader isn't just questioned by the public, but by people in his own government caucus."

Braid is giving far too much credit to the UCP's sheep-like MLAs, of course, and the Kenney government could still get away with its sloppy school reopening if luck prevails and post-opening COVID-19 infection rates don't jump.

The auguries may not be promising, however. Or perhaps that should be, the science isn't.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that as schools across the United States resume in-person classes, "data compiled by the American Academy of Pediatrics from the summer show that cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the coronavirus have increased at a faster rate in children and teenagers than among the general public."

"Young children seem to catch and transmit the virus less than adults and children of all ages tend not to experience severe complications from it," the Times reported. But the story quoted Dr. Sean O'Leary of the American Academy of Pediatrics infectious diseases committee saying "substantial community spread in many parts of the United States corresponded with more infections among children."

Whoever was responsible for this Alberta blunder has tarnished Hinshaw's reputation with the public, and made it harder for the UCP's issues managers to hide behind her pronouncements when defending Kenney's school reopening policy.

On the other hand, at least Kenney isn't the least popular provincial premier in Canada. That would be Newfoundland and Labrador's Andrew Furey, according to a poll released by the Angus Reid Institute yesterday.

With his 42-per-cent approval rating, Kenney is still eight points above Furey, a Liberal.

Alberta's premier, however, is less popular than all the other premiers, according to Angus Reid, and 27 points below the country's most popular provincial premier, British Columbia's John Horgan, a New Democrat.

And there's still plenty of time in his mandate for him to go right to the bottom.

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: Screenshot of Alberta government video/YouTube

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