Premier Danielle Smith rules out mask mandates despite widespread school illness

Premier Danielle Smith said Monday a school mask mandate is not being considered for Alberta schools. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Premier Danielle Smith said Monday a school mask mandate is not being considered for Alberta schools. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Thousands of Alberta children are home from school with respiratory illnesses, but Alberta Premier Danielle Smith says a school mask mandate is not on the table, and she plans to prevent school boards from invoking them.

"Health decisions are the purview of the health minister with advice from who he needs to seek advice from," Smith said at an unrelated news conference in Sherwood Park on Monday.

"I've been talking with the justice minister about that, that we retain the full authority to be offering that advice at the provincial level."

Alberta schools have seen absences of more than 10 per cent of the student population, with more than 20,000 public school students sick in Edmonton last Wednesday alone

Education minister Adriana LaGrange said she hasn't received requests from school boards to invoke a mask mandate.

Alberta Health and Alberta Health Services have remained silent. Information about the number of school outbreaks is not available.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health during the first 2½ years of the pandemic, has not been seen or heard from in weeks.

When Smith was sworn in as premier on Oct. 11, she said she would replace Hinshaw.

On Monday, Smith said Albertans would hear from the CMOH later this week but wouldn't say whether Hinshaw was still in that role. She said a new doctor's advisory panel would be introduced later this week.

Smith said the government is now treating COVID as an endemic so no special measures are planned to prevent illness.

She said she is concerned about a national shortage of children's cold medications and long waiting times at Alberta's children's hospitals. She suggested compounding pharmacies could help get medications to kids.

Smith said those are the actions parents want her to take.

"I think it's important that we not cause an overreaction or a state of panic," she said. "We want people to know that we take this seriously, but we also want to do the things that we know are going to help."

Rakhi Pancholi, the NDP MLA for Edmonton-Whitemud, has a school-aged child sick at home.

She said the province needs to step up and start providing some information and advice.

"They need to stand up, speak to parents, speak to school boards," Pancholi said. "Tell us what information they're relying upon, find out which experts are advising on that so that we can all have some trust in the decisions that are being made.

"Right now, no decisions are being made, no information is forthcoming and school boards and parents are at a complete loss as to what to do."

Monday marked the first time Smith has held a news conference since Oct. 24, when her cabinet was sworn in at Government House.

Smith spent a couple of weeks campaigning to win her seat in Brooks-Medicine Hat byelection on Nov. 8.

At a public forum in the final week of the campaign, Smith appeared to agree with another candidate about inviting Paul Alexander to Alberta to provide COVID-19 advice.

"I've got a group of doctors advising me and I know that they've already reached out to Dr. Paul Alexander, so I'm interested in hearing what he has to say," Smith said at the forum.

Alexander, an adviser to former U.S. President Donald Trump, once called COVID-19 vaccines "bioweapons" and spoke in favour of encouraging herd immunity to fight the pandemic.

When asked about those comments Monday, Smith denied extending an invitation to Alexander.