Students slowly return to northern Alberta school following parent protest of COVID-19 rules

Menno Simons Community School is a K-12 school in Cleardale, Alta. (Menno Simons Community School - image credit)
Menno Simons Community School is a K-12 school in Cleardale, Alta. (Menno Simons Community School - image credit)

Students are slowly returning to class at a northern Alberta school, following a meeting with parents who kept their children at home to protest COVID-19 health regulations.

Parents at the Menno Simons K-12 school in Cleardale, Alta., 140 kilometres northwest of Grande Prairie, pulled their children from the classroom March 15 to protest masking and physical distancing rules being enforced in all Alberta classrooms.

That morning, 55 students were absent. On Tuesday, following a meeting between parents and school officials, only 26 weren't in class.

"I have lots of faith that the parents will co-operate," Paul Bennett, superintendent for the Peace River School Division, said Tuesday.

"And I think they recognize that maybe there might have been a better way initially to have launched into this advocacy."

School obliged to uphold provincial rules

About 30 people attended the forum and Bennett said school officials had special permission from provincial health officials to hold the gathering inside the school gymnasium.

Parents involved in the protest have suggested masks and social isolation rules are making their children unwell, Bennett said.

After the meeting, most parents in attendance agreed to send their children back to school and instead lobby the provincial government for the policy changes.

Parents were also reminded that provincial health regulations are outside the school's jurisdiction.

"I have to enforce the wearing of masks," said Bennett,

"And personally, I believe that the masks are helping to slow down the spread of the virus. We have agreed to disagree."

A group of parents sent a letter on March 5 to officials — including Premier Jason Kenney and the ministers of education and health — demanding the school be exempted from certain public health measures or their children would stop attending on March 15.

Though he wished parents had first reached out to school administration, Bennett said he empathized with the families.

He said the tight-knit Mennonite community is home to the most dedicated, involved group of parents he has ever worked with.

"I look forward to a positive outcome to this situation. I mean, the whole demonstration has been disruptive. It's been hurtful," he said.

"But like I said to people last night, you know, we have to respect each other's point of view."

Parents were upset that the doors to the school had been locked during the pandemic, a measure Bennett said was to ensure visitors were following mask protocols.

There was also frustration about school council meetings being moved online. Many of the families have limited or unreliable internet access, he said.

Bennett said the school doors will remain unlocked from now on and school officials will examine how they can safely hold physically distanced meetings for any parents who can't access them online.

'I think we can make this work'

Edith and Abram Giesbrecht are among the parents who signed the letter, pulling their two sons from classes last week.

Giesbrecht, who attended Monday's meeting, sent both of his sons back to class on Tuesday.

While he remains opposed to mandatory masking in classrooms and feels that provincial regulations have been harmful, Giesbrecht said he understands the rules are outside the school's jurisdiction.

"They've got higher-ups as well. They've got to obey the law," he said.

"We got to see each other's side better," he said. "Now, I think we can make this work."