Alberta government restricts learning to online only in elementary schools

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Alberta’s government is putting new restrictions on how the province’s schools can transition to online learning, as well as specifying that wearing a mask cannot be a condition of attending classes.

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Changes announced on Thursday mean school authorities can only switch from Grade 1 to Grade 12 online if they also maintain an in-person option for parents who want to keep sending their children to school.

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The government also stated that students from early childhood programs through grade 12 cannot be denied in-person education “because of their personal decision to wear or not wear a mask.”

Mask mandates have not been in effect in Alberta schools since February.

The new rules take effect immediately. Specific educational programming delivered in a hospital or correctional facility, for example, would be exempt from the personal learning requirement.

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The move follows growing concern about high student absenteeism, with this year’s fall respiratory virus season hitting particularly hard. In the first winter season without public health protection since 2020, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), influenza and COVID-19 are circulating.

Hospitals also face one wave of sick children. The medical director of Stollery Children’s Hospital confirmed last week that the children’s hospital is full, but the staff is prepared to create surge rooms.

In a letter to parents earlier this month, Edmonton Catholic Schools Chief Superintendent Robert Martin said while in-person learning is a priority, “it may be necessary to move individual classes or grades to online learning as needed due to operational challenges.”

A spokesperson for Edmonton Catholic Schools later said this would only be considered “after all other options for maintaining personalized learning have been explored.”

Last week, the Edmonton Public Schools board requested specific thresholds to guide when mandatory seclusion and masking should be implemented in schools.

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The Board noted that a recent decision by the Court of King’s Bench of Alberta found Alberta government acted ‘unreasonably’ in lifting a COVID-19 mask mandate for schools last winter.

Premier Danielle Smith has said she does not support the return of masking in classrooms. She said in a statement Thursday that parents and students want to be in a “normal school environment.”

“With that in mind, we have taken steps to protect and enhance educational choice. Families are free to make their own personal health decisions, and whatever that decision is, it will be supported by Alberta’s education system.”

NDP opposition health critic Sarah Hoffman said in a statement that the announcement shows the prime minister and education minister “don’t have a clue” about what’s happening in schools.

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“It is completely unrealistic to expect school districts to staff in-person and online classes simultaneously without additional resources,” she said. “They are struggling to staff schools that have already had UCP cuts in the last budget.”

The province’s public health law would override the new policies, so if the chief health officer made a future order to restore school mask mandates or require a broad return to online learning, those decisions would stand.

A government announcement said the changes are about creating clarity and creating a “guarantee” for access to personalized learning and ensuring that “personal and family choices are respected.”

“Securing a face-to-face classroom means students can continue to learn successfully while allowing their parents to go to work. It will also help maintain and improve students’ mental health while minimizing student learning loss, ” said Secretary of Education Adriana LaGrange.

— With files from Lisa Johnson and Anna Junker

masmith@postmedia.com

@meksmith

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