As older students across Alberta sport face masks to class, the province's chief medical officer of health has made an exception for five schools.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw approved a plan that allows students attending classes in the La Crete and Buffalo Head Prairie areas of northern Alberta to move through hallways and common areas with their faces uncovered.
Fort Vermilion Public Schools superintendent Michael McMann said Tuesday the school division's smaller class sizes allow staff to keep everyone two metres apart, as the province requires.
Students will also be strictly cohorted with one teacher throughout the day, including high school students studying multiple subjects. Only one class can be in a school hallway at once, and only one student in a bathroom at a time, he said.
"What people are missing in all of it is the extreme cohorting that's actually taking place," McMann said. "There's no other jurisdiction in the province that is pinning it down to one teacher."
Class sizes in the division's 13 schools were below provincial averages in 2018-19, which is the last year the province tracked the numbers.
About 650 of the division's 3,000 students are also absent from classrooms this year, McMann said. Around 250 children are learning remotely and another 400 are doing home education, which is double the number of home schoolers enrolled last year.
Masking is mandatory for Alberta students in Grades 4 to 12 when they are moving around the school, or closer than two metres to others while not all seated, facing forward. Some divisions, like Edmonton Public Schools, go further, and require masks at all times in classrooms.
Area under a COVID watch
However, the Fort Vermilion school division overlaps Mackenzie County, which had the third-highest per capita rate of positive COVID-19 tests as of Tuesday.
Alberta Health reports that 66 people are actively infected with the virus in the county, which is a rate of 273 cases per 100,000 people. For comparison, the rate is about 58 cases per 100,000 people in the City of Edmonton and 48 per 100,000 in Calgary.
Alberta Health has declared Mackenzie County under a watch, meaning the province is speaking with local officials about the possibility of additional local measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Allowing some students to go mask-free while the potentially fatal virus is circulating in the area makes Deb Stecyk nervous. She runs a safety training business in High Level that runs some in-person classes that can include school-aged students.
Wearing a mask is a simple step to add a layer of protection, she said. People in the region frequently travel between High Level, La Crete and Fort Vermilion to shop and access services, she said, which could allow further spread of the virus.
"Every day I open my door and I wonder if today's going to be the day that I take COVID home to my husband, my family, or if it's spread in the classroom," she said.
Hinshaw told reporters at a news conference health officials will monitor for cases or outbreaks at the Fort Vermilion schools to see if the plan needs adjustment.
'It changes how I teach'
Myrna McLean's Grade 5 students returned to her classroom in La Crete on Tuesday. The Alberta Teachers' Association local president in Fort Vermilion had initially expected 27 students, but she got 16.
Teachers and staff members do wear masks and face shields, she said. Her students never mingle with kids from another class — not in the halls, at recess or lunch, she said
"I don't think [no student masks] would change how safe I feel. It changes how I teach," she said. "I'm always conscious of the fact that I have to keep my distance. It's a very different way of teaching, because you're always sort of on guard."
The division has also changed its busing arrangements so students who ride yellow buses can be distanced from children outside of their household.
Although Alberta Health said no other schools or divisions have received approval to dispense with mandatory student masks, Hinshaw said it could happen.
"We are allowing schools to implement enhanced physical distancing measures as an alternative to mandatory masking if a school can make sure that two metres is maintained at all times outside of seated class instruction," she said.