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Alberta's back-to-school plan: COVID-19 vaccine clinics, masking not required by province

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EDMONTON -

Masking in Alberta schools during the 2021-22 academic year will be a choice local authorities make or a tool used during a respiratory illness outbreak, the province said Friday.

Schools will also host temporary COVID-19 immunization clinics for older students who are of eligible age, according to the province's plan for the fall return to classrooms.

Education Minister Adrian LaGrange promised students, families, and staff could look forward to a "normal school year," with unrestricted extracurricular activities, graduation celebrations, and field trips.

The five-page document "strongly encourage[s]" schools to develop their own specific plan from the provincially recommended strategies, things like routine HVAC system cleaning and promoting good hygiene practices.

Staff and guardians will be asked by the province to check daily for COVID-19 symptoms. Schools are also recommended to screen daily for symptoms. Anyone with symptoms will be directed to stay home.

But neither AHS nor staff and the school community will be required to report positive cases to schools. Likewise, schools will not be required to report confirmed cases to AHS, unless there is a school-wide absence rate of 10 per cent or more. If AHS finds the absences are due to an illness, it may declare an outbreak and recommend more measures to reduce transmission.

"The guidance we are releasing today considers the risks of COVID-19 as well as the risks of public health measures on children's overall health and wellbeing," Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said, citing increased feelings among youth in Alberta of social isolation, depression and anxiety.

"In 2020, four times more school aged children were admitted to hospital for fall-related injuries and almost eight times as many were admitted to hospital for anxiety disorders than for COVID-19. Overall, less than half of one per cent of all diagnosed COVID case in school-aged children have required hospital care and thankfully there have been no COVID related deaths in children."

LaGrange said measures like cohorting, masking and physical distancing had been necessary the previous year, but, "at this stage of the pandemic, we believe such measures are best left to local authorities to decide for themselves."

Fewer than 800 of Alberta's current 4,100 COVID-19 cases are young people under 19.

According to Hinshaw, half of youth aged 12 to 17 have been vaccinated. The in-school clinics will be run by Alberta Health Services starting Sept. 7.

The plan was announced at the same time Alberta rolled back plans to stop COVID-19 symptomatic testing and isolation requirements.

LACK OF CONSISTENCY MAY CAUSE 'CONFUSION': ATA

Reaction to the news was mixed.

For school boards preparing for the fall, and year-round schools that had resumed classes with last year's measures still in place, it was guidance of some kind they had been waiting for.

And while there were parts of the document he considered positive, the president of the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA) said it lacked clarity around communication about positive cases between the province and schools, and downloaded responsibility to school authorities.

"When we have inconsistencies in application of the rules across the province, it causes confusion amongst students and teacher and those who are working in schools," Jason Schilling told reporters.

"That can cause a lot of questions, it can cause some divisiveness, and those are things that we just don't need in the school system as we move forward to the fall, especially after such a disruptive and challenging school year."

He also called the 10-per cent absenteeism threshold concerning, given what it could mean for virus transmission if that sized chunk of a large city school was sick.

Pediatrician Dr. Tehseen Ladha applauded the government for brining in vaccine clinics, which will be run by Alberta Health Services starting Sept. 7. According to Hinshaw, half of youth aged 12 to 17 have been vaccinated.

Ladha considers the outreach a way to improve access or eliminate barriers to the vaccine.

But, she was "pretty disappointed" in the rest of the document.

"The lack of mandating masks, I think, is a huge disappointment. We know that Delta is so contagious… it doesn't make scientific sense to just mask in school buses but not in the classroom when the classroom is the place you're spending the majority of time as a student."

Students will be required to wear a mask on buses -- like the public will have to on public transit -- until the end of September, Hinshaw also announced Friday in a rollback of the province's plan to stop COVID-19 symptomatic testing and isolation requirements.

"I don't think that makes a lot of sense," added Wing Li, a spokesperson for Support Our Students Alberta.

The group had been rallying at the Alberta legislature for stronger health measures in schools and a continuation of Alberta's COVID-19 testing, tracing and isolation program.

But overall, Li saw Friday's guidance for schools and the Alberta's backtracking on the latter program as a short-term victory.

"This was the power of people. It really came down to forcing them to look at the science, the data, look at what's happening in the United States. I have total confidence it was because of people coming together and having their voices heard."

With files from CTV Edmonton's Touria Izri

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