No Alberta schools or pre-kindergarten classes can require students to wear masks to attend school, says a new provincial government regulation.
The rules, which take effect today, also prevent almost every Alberta school from shifting Grade 1 to 12 classes to a solely online format.
Kindergarten and pre-kindergarten classes are excluded and schools in sensitive settings such as hospitals may be exempt from the rules.
"Parents and students have told me time and time again that they want a normal school environment for their kids," Premier Danielle Smith said in an afternoon news release Thursday.
Smith's statement said new regulations "enhance educational choice" and require the education system to support that choice.
The statement says the government is concerned about the mental health implications of children missing in-person classes during the pandemic. It also says some children struggled with online learning during the past three years, and that an in-person option should help children keep up with their academics.
The news release said schools and school boards were seeking clarity on what public health measures they could consider adopting.
The change comes as children's hospitals and schools are grappling with a wave of sick children and teens.
Doctors say pediatric emergency departments across the country are slammed with children showing up with respiratory and gastrointestinal infections.
Public health doctors have said influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19 are leading to a triple whammy of health challenges for children.
Should Alberta's chief medical officer of health decide to require additional public health measures in school to control outbreaks of disease, those orders would take precedence over the new school regulations.
Last February, the Alberta government lifted mask mandates in schools. The families of five immunocompromised children and the Alberta Federation of Labour then challenged that government decision in court.
In October, a Court of King's Bench judge found the government's requirement to end mask mandates was "unreasonable" because the decision was made by cabinet and not the chief medical officer of health, who has that power under the Public Health Act.
The judge also found Education Minister Adriana LaGrange had not taken the legal steps required to prevent school mask mandates.
At the time, Smith said the government was looking at legal avenues to address this.
Smith campaigned for United Conservative Party leadership on the promise that children would never be required to masks in school again.
The new regulations apply to public, Catholic, Francophone, private and charter schools.
More to come.