“When your classroom reaches 10 percent absenteeism, you have to mandate masking,” said parent Jennifer Armstrong
As the province scrambles to ensure that school boards cannot mandate masking in classrooms, parents struggle with the effects of illness in their households and hope that at least targeted mandates can be considered if things get worse.
“Our children still have a right to safe buildings, safe educational institutions, but we’re not seeing that right now in Calgary,” said Liz Benfield, who saw both of her young children sick with respiratory illnesses this fall, including her daughter who lives a preschool program in a public school at.
“In the absence of any proactive policy, we should at least consider targeted mask mandates in schools where absenteeism rates are high. And when we get an outbreak letter from the school, it should at least say ‘everyone must now wear high-quality masks,'” Benfield added.
But even as absenteeism rates due to illness remain high, Alberta Education has now announced new regulations to prevent schools from mandating masks, or forcing students to learn from home.
The province ruled Thursday that students cannot be denied in-person instruction “because of their personal decision to wear or not wear a mask.” It also said schools retain the right to move classes online, but only if they also maintain an in-person option for parents who want to keep sending their children to school.
Even if a school faces a high rate of sickness and absenteeism, Premier Danielle Smith stressed that “parents have told me time and time again they want a normal school environment for their children.”
But many parents say there is nothing normal about the school environment at the moment. And refusing to mask exacerbates the existing lack of transparency in schools, where families often don’t even hear that absences are high in their classroom until their own child is sick.
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“When your classroom reaches 10 percent absence, you must immediately mandate masking. You can’t just keep letting it permeate and spread throughout the school,” said Jennifer Armstrong, whose son attends grade 2 in the Calgary Catholic School District.
He came home very ill two weeks ago, she said, suffering from high fever and chills for three days. He then came down with bronchitis and a bad cough for a few more days.
Her daughter, who is three, has a genetic condition that makes her medically fragile, and the family’s fear is that she too may become ill.
At the same time, Armstrong, who works as a nurse at Peter Lougheed Hospital, was unable to go to work while her son was ill.
“There are so many effects on families when a child gets sick.”
Benfield agreed, adding that both she and her husband had to take time off work to care for sick children. And she worries about the long-term effects of repeated illnesses, including prolonged COVID.
“Eeven mild changes in cognitive function, thinking, memory, and any level of fatigue, both of which are seen in prolonged COVID, can have a significant impact on a person’s ability to function.
“How are children going to learn, engage in extracurricular activities, have meaningful friendships and spend time with their families if they are too sick from repeated viral infections acquired at school?”
Absenteeism remains high in schools with the CCSD and the Calgary Board of Education.
The CBE provided more detailed data on its website, showing an average of 12 percent absenteeism in primary schools this week, and several individual schools with absenteeism rates of 20 percent or more.
CCSD lists only schools with 10 percent or more absenteeism on its website, a number that ranged between 45 and 48 out of 117 schools this week.
Before the province’s announcement about masking, none of the school boards would commit to mandates, saying masks were optional and that they would take advice from the province.
But now advocates fear it’s too late for school boards to fight the province’s new regulations.
Last week, the Alberta Federation of Labor sent a letter to school boards warning them to “use it before you lose it” and issue temporary mask mandates during this time of high illness rates before the province moves to create legislation that would prevent
“Help is not on the way,” AFL president Gil McGowan wrote, addressing school boards directly. “You are the last line of defense for students and staff in schools.”
Dr. Jia Hu, a public health doctor and adjunct professor at the University of Calgary, said mask mandates could be difficult if there isn’t a great deal of buy-in from all parents.
“In principle, targeted mask mandates are a good idea. But in practice they are challenging, given the broad level of social division we see.
“If you mask kids, you can see parents protesting kids — and it’s crazy, I know, but it can happen.”
Still, Hu added that his colleagues in pediatric care are still seeing a large surge of patients and that “it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Meanwhile, parents say they are left on their own to deal with lingering illness and its wider effects on families.
“Why not at least implement masking on a targeted basis? Not just for vulnerable children, but when a school hits a high rate of illness,” said Fuyo Watanabe, whose son is immunocompromised and attends the Emily Follensbee School for students with complex special needs.
Watanabe added that according to one snapshot of the CBE’s data this week, only 15 elementary schools were below 10 percent absenteeism rates.
“Can’t we set a target that triggers a short-term mask mandate at a specific school?
“Because it is the youngest students who are hit hardest and nothing is done.”