OHS Canada Magazine

Teachers’ union, Edmonton school board, worried about Alberta lifting mask rule


February 10, 2022
By The Canadian Press

Compliance & Enforcement Health & Safety Occupational Hygiene alberta COVID-19 Masks schools

By Fakiha Baig

EDMONTON — The president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association says it is exploring legal options after the province announced it will lift the mask mandate in classrooms and take away power from school boards that disagree with the decision to implement their own rules.

Jason Schilling said Wednesday it’s too soon to say whether individual teachers will take legal action against the government but it is talking to its lawyers about teachers who may have occupational health and safety concerns.

“The association will look at all the avenues that we have available to us in order to make sure that our teachers are working in a healthy and safe atmosphere and environment,” Schilling said Wednesday.

“Teachers can look at their workspace, their classrooms, and say I don’t feel safe here like every employee across the province.”

The province announced Tuesday that mandatory mask rules will be cancelled for children under 12 in all settings and for all children in schools starting next week.

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Education Minister Adriana LaGrange also issued a public letter informing school boards they no longer have the power to override the directive and order students to wear masks in school or on school buses.

Schilling said school boards were initially handed the autonomy last fall.

LaGrange said there has been a downward trend in the number of Alberta schools that have shifted to at-home learning over the last few weeks due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

“At the peak of the fifth wave, there were 29 schools that were shifted to at-home learning, and today, only seven of the over 2,500-plus schools in our province remain learning at home.”

Premier Jason Kenney tweeted Tuesday he found it “disturbing to see that the teachers’ union thinks unmasked kids create ‘an unsafe workplace’ and is threatening legal action to force kids to wear masks indefinitely.”

“Almost all Alberta teachers are triple vaccinated. Treat kids like kids, not ‘unsafe’ vectors of transmission.”

Trisha Estabrooks, the chair of Edmonton Public Schools, said the district plans to tell the parents of its 105,000-plus students that masks are still encouraged because she’s concerned there will be more spread of the virus.

“We’re seeing a downward trend in terms of self-reported cases of COVID in our school but, to remove a layer of protection for our students and staff in the midst of not seeing high vaccination uptakes in kids five to 11 years of age, and not having even a vaccine for kids under the age of five, it may be at risk,” she said.

“It’s too much too fast.”

Estabrooks said the government’s masking announcement is a “nightmare” because many parents decided to send their kids to school in-person instead of enrolling them into online learning due to protocols such as a mask mandate that was promised by the school board.

“Parents have had a lot of faith in our back-to-school plan,” Estabrooks said.

“The protocols gave parents a lot of confidence. Now, it’s a very different story. You can imagine, for a school division this size, to allow additional families to now switch to online is pretty much impossible.”

Estabrooks said she’s frustrated that school boards were not consulted by the government and noted her email inbox is filling up with messages from concerned parents.

“There is a level of politics that is at play in this pandemic. It has been at play the entire two years that we’ve been through this and that’s all I’m gonna say on that.”

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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