Alberta education minister says she will listen to top doctor about masks in schools

Alberta's education minister says she will take advice from the province's new chief medical health officer on whether to allow school boards to bring in mask mandates in schools with respiratory illness outbreaks.

The Edmonton public school board has asked Alberta Health and Alberta Education whether it can require masks as schools deal with a wave of viral illnesses that is sending thousands of students home sick and straining hospitals.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was asked about the request multiple times during a news conference about additional mental health supports for students.

"There is not a one-size-fits-all for this situation," LaGrange said Wednesday.

"We are going to continue to monitor the situation and, of course, we will take guidance from the new chief medical officer of health. Beyond that, we will continue to ensure our schools and our staff members are protected."

LaGrange said students and staff are welcome to wear masks but "the premier was very clear recently that we do not anticipate having a mask mandate in place."

Dr. Mark Joffe, who was appointed chief medical officer of health earlier this week, said in a statement later Wednesday that Alberta is seeing an early rise in seasonal infections such as flu, respiratory syncytial virus and COVID-19.

"The province continues to transition back to long-standing practices to manage respiratory infections in general," he said. "That includes local public health officials notifying schools of outbreaks and giving them advice and support as needed."

Joffe said Albertans can take simple, daily actions to help prevent the spread by staying up to date on vaccinations, wearing a well-fitting, high-quality mask and avoiding close contact with people who are sick.

"Albertans should be supported regardless of their choice to mask or not," he said.

Premier Danielle Smith has been critical of mask rules in schools, saying they adversely affected the mental health, development and education of students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Edmonton school board chair Trisha Estabrooks said Tuesday there are also mental health concerns with the current situation.

"Missing school and being worried about getting sick also have an impact on our children's mental health," said Estabrooks.

"A blanket statement of no more mask mandates ever in schools, I believe, is short-sighted. We can't predict where the next stage of the pandemic will go."

In Edmonton, Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said parents and school boards are seeking leadership and guidance from Smith's United Conservative government but are getting chaos.

"What we've got here is nothing but confusion and distraction and an abdication of responsibility by our provincial government," said Notley.

She said Joffe is doing his job on top of his existing responsibilities as a senior leader with Alberta Health Services.

"(Joffe's) not actually even being paid to do the job and he's still doing his other complete job, so that sounds to me like we’ve got a government that doesn’t really value that role."

Notley said while Joffe is officially tasked with setting public health policy, Smith is assembling a parallel team of medical professionals to advise her on public health.

Smith recently said she wants to hear from Dr. Paul Alexander, a controversial COVID-19 critic who has argued for herd immunity and has called COVID-19 vaccines a "bioweapon."

"What the UCP, therefore, has created is a mess and a vacuum (of authority)," said Notley. "Danielle Smith seems most interested in talking to conspiracy theorists."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2022.

Colette Derworiz and Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press