Schools in Alberta are not required to implement masking for their staff and students, but one school division in Hinton has already brought back mandatory masking.
Evergreen Catholic Separate School Division (ECSSD) decided to make masks mandatory for students and staff in all common areas and situations where two-metre distancing cannot be maintained due to the large spike of COVID-19 cases in their communities, explained Ron McKay, ECSSD’s board chair.
Instead of having a meeting every time there’s a change within one of their communities, the board delegated the response to the superintendent to make quick decisions, he added. The superintendent will contact trustees and decide based on the situation in each community what restrictions and protocols should be in place there. Mandatory masks in their schools may change as the number of COVID-19 cases rise and fall in the communities. Within schools in Hinton that are part of the ECSSD, the vaccination rate is roughly 47 per cent, which also factors into the protocols for each school, he said.
“It has a long way to go, and whether or not we can get vaccines in schools and if that will help I’m not sure,” McKay concluded.
School boards are able to continue to set COVID-19 management policies as deemed appropriate, and the Grande Yellowhead Public School Division (GYPSD) continues collecting feedback from their communities on what policies and protocols they would like to see.
The board discussed the current situation and the decision around mandatory masks at the Sept. 8 board meeting. Trustees shared feedback from their constituents on whether the board’s 2021-2022 re-entry plan needed to be amended to include mandatory masking.
“I had a pretty good cross section of people and every single person reached out saying they wanted much like last year’s protocol in the fall, which is mandatory masking for our students,” said Hinton trustee Ellen Aust.
She noted that 12 people reached out, including doctors, healthcare workers whose children attend a GYPSD school, some teachers, parents, and some individuals from the ECSSD division. There was some debate on whether Kindergarten students should be mandated to wear masks, but the majority of the people Aust spoke to just wanted safety for their kids.
Aust noted that several trustees from other communities had not received the same feedback, and that their communities did not want mandatory masks in schools. Trustees heard from members of the public who were both in favour of and opposed to masking. The board requested that a survey about masking be sent out to parents, staff, and students prior to the issue being revisited at its Oct. 6 meeting.
Hinton trustee Shirley Caputo received similar feedback as Aust and had hoped mandatory masking would move forward quickly during their previous meeting.
“It’s important that we do what’s best for our communities and for our students and staff in our schools. That’s how I look upon it, we’re all doing what’s best for staff and students in our schools,” Caputo said.
Data collected through the survey will be reviewed and the board’s decision will be revisited at the Oct. 6 meeting.
Within GYPSD’s current re-entry plan, the board strongly encourages the use of masks when physical-distancing cannot be maintained and supports individuals regardless of their choices to mask or vaccinate.
“One of the nurses I [spoke to] said that they will be sending their children with masks even though our protocol strongly recommends and it doesn’t have to be legally enforced,” Aust said.
Beside the recommendation and support to wear masks, the board’s health and safety mandate for the 2021/2022 school year also includes promoting and facilitating hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, physical distancing, staying home when sick, maintaining ventilation, ensuring regular cleaning and disinfecting of high touch areas, strongly encouraging eligible staff and students get vaccinated, creating cohorts of students for contact tracing, and requiring the use of the Alberta Health daily checklist by staff, students, and visitors entering a school. Visitors are asked to book appointments prior to visiting any GYPSD schools.
Masha Scheele, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hinton Voice