With the provincial government stepping back from the responsibility, school boards across Alberta are having to make gut-wrenching choices about whether or not to bring in mandatory masking requirements to protect students and staff against COVID-19.
At a special meeting Tuesday, trustees on the Parkland School Division board narrowly voted against reinstating a masking policy. Face coverings will be strongly recommended — but not mandatory — for students, staff and visitors.
Jacqueline Sampson, a parent of two students in the school division west of Edmonton, said the province should not be downloading divisive public health decisions onto local school boards.
"I don't think they should be forced to make a decision like this, but the Alberta government has forced them," Sampson said in an interview Wednesday.
"And so, because the Alberta government is not choosing to protect kids, somebody's got to."
Last Friday, in a bid to clamp down on rising fourth wave, Premier Jason Kenney announced that masks would become mandatory in indoor public spaces and workplaces in Alberta.
Schools, however, are exempt.
School boards have been left to set their own policies on masking, creating a patchwork of rules across the province as students return to the classroom.
Public and Catholic school boards in Edmonton and Calgary have since voted to have masks remain mandatory. Students and staff in Red Deer, Fort McMurray and Elk Island Public Schools will also need to mask up.
When Education Minister Adriana LaGrange promised a "normal" school year on Aug. 13, Alberta had 4,438 active cases and 152 people in hospital with the illness.
As of Tuesday, there were 15,486 active cases with 602 people in hospital.
Detailed school data is no longer being reported online. Provincial data shows 2,892 of Alberta's active cases are among people aged five to 19.
"It's going to totally backfire. " -Jacqueline Sampson, parent
Sampson fears the hodgepodge of rules will leave her children, ages six and 12, at risk — and accelerate the spread of COVID in Alberta communities.
If she could afford to keep her six-year-old at home until she's eligible for vaccination, she would.
"When the cases go up, you can be sure that those cases are going to be coming from schools," she said. "It's going to totally backfire. "
According to back-to-school guidelines announced in August, students must wear masks on school transportation until at least Sept. 27.
Beyond the school bus, classroom policies on masks have diverged.
On Wednesday, trustees with Rocky Mountain House-based Wild Rose School Division voted 4-2 against making masks mandatory.
The board, however, voted in favour of mandatory masking for school visitors, and prohibiting schools from holding any large indoor gatherings.
Wednesday's Wild Rose board meeting demonstrated the divisions facing schools grappling with whether or not to introduce mask mandates.
Parent Roxanne Franczak urged trustees to reject mandatory masks.
She said parents should decide what's best — and said there is no reason why boards should adopt rulers stricter than those set out by the province.
Masks are harmful to students' mental health, Franczak said.
"This is not normal for healthy childhood development," she said. "Parents and children are getting fed up with the narrative and restrictions being pushed upon us."
Wild Rose trustee Daryl Scott, who ultimately voted against the mask mandate, said he supported the motion but felt pressure from parents to reject it.
"The government's downloaded a bombshell," Scott said.
"We, as school boards in the province of Alberta, have been asking for autonomy, more autonomy … Well, the government's picked a very hot topic and said, 'There, deal with it.'"
Protecting the school year
School boards are making health decisions with limited access to public health data, he said.
"There's lots of evidence out there showing vaccination is one of the ways to get out of this pandemic but we can't force everybody to be vaccinated. So there's a problem on our doorstep that, no matter what we say or do, we can't ignore."
Children under age 12 are not eligible for vaccines.
The province has stopped contact tracing in classrooms and is no longer notifying schools of positive cases. School boards are having to rely on the honour system.
Wild Rose trustee Russ Hickman said that despite receiving complaints, he felt compelled to vote in favour.
He said he wants to avoid another year marked by closures and quarantines.
"We can protect children and protect the school year by implementing mask mandates," Hickman said.