A northern Alberta school has seen its student population drop in half as parents opposed to COVID-19 public health measures removed their children from classes.
Fifty-five students were pulled from classes at the Menno Simons K-12 school in Cleardale, Alta., 140 kilometres northwest of Grande Prairie, by their parents last Monday, said Paul Bennett, superintendent for the Peace River School Division.
A group of parents sent a letter on March 5 to the premier, the education and health ministers and other officials asking the school be exempted from certain public health measures or their children would stop attending on March 15.
"They felt that these issues were above myself," Bennett said Saturday. "They are provincial requirements."
Bennett said parents oppose province-wide policies on mask-wearing and physical distancing and have raised concerns about headaches they believe are caused by oxygen deprivation due to masking.
Experts say there is no evidence masks reduce oxygen levels.
Alberta Health spokesperson Sherene Khaw confirmed the letter had been received. She said schools who can ensure a two-metre distance between students, staff and visitors at all times may submit a plan to the chief medical officer of health.
"Although we are all growing tired of these necessary measures, we encourage Albertans to continue the hard work of practising public health measures and to protect those around us until we are able to return to our normal practices."
Community a 'big family unit'
Edith and Abram Giesbrecht are among the parents who signed the letter, pulling their two sons from classes last week.
Abram Giesbrecht believes freedoms have been unduly restricted during the pandemic and that the danger and death rates of COVID-19 have been exaggerated.
While he respects that other communities may want to mask up, he wants the province to recognize the different situations in rural and urban areas.
"That's what we're fighting for and I wish we could change something," he said Monday.
The community is a "big family unit" and families often spend time with each other outside of the school, Edith Giesbrecht said.
The contrast in how the school has operated during the pandemic and how the community lives is stark, she said.
"Whoever is there when someone needs help, that's what we do. We don't have room for distancing and masking or even the idea that we need to fear each other."
While the Mennonite community's religious beliefs play a part in the opposition, she said, there is also concern for the potential harm caused by isolation.
"God is in control every day, but we still wear a seatbelt," she said. "But really, we do wear a seatbelt for going driving on the road, but we wouldn't wear them when we're parked."
There were other reasons why parents are upset, Edith Giesbrecht said, such as moving school council meetings online where many parents could not access them, she said.
'Extremely involved' community
Bennett believes there were several factors that play into the conflict. One is a recent turnover of staff. New staff members, including the principal, are still establishing roots in the tightly-knit community.
In the late fall, the principal started locking school doors after a stranger entered looking for directions and concerns were raised about a community member.
Another issue was visitors not respecting mask requirements when entering, Bennett said.
Bennett said he agrees with the decision, but it may have caused further issues as parents might have felt separated from decision-making.
The community has been "extremely involved" in their children's education in the past, Bennett said. School council meetings would draw dozens of parents.
Bennett, who has worked in the area for decades, said he and the principal have had positive meetings with representatives from the parent group and he is optimistic they can find a way forward.
"I've shared with them that I will agree to disagree. I believe the masking is a good thing to have occurring. Many of the parents do not," he said.
"But that's OK. I mean, it's OK and healthy sometimes to have differing opinions."
A school council of parents and staff is expected to meet Monday, which students have off for a professional development day.
"I am very optimistic that in the coming days that we'll see more students returning," Bennett said.
The Giesbrechts say if the school unlocks the doors and allows in-person school council meetings, most parents will allow their children to return.
They remain undecided but say the fight against masking is far from over.
"It's going to be bigger than just at the school level," Edith Giesbrecht said.
Six of the 55 students had already returned to the school the next day.
The school typically has an enrolment of 110 students, but has 81 students this year, Bennett said.