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'Enhance educational choice': Alberta government bans school mask mandates, online-only instruction


In a bid to "protect and enhance educational choice," Alberta banned all K-12 school authorities and early childhood learning operators from implementing mask mandates and pivoting to online-only learning.

On Thursday, the province passed two orders in council with immediate effect amending the Education Act to prevent any school or early learning operator from denying a child access to classes if they are not wearing a face mask or covering.

In addition, any education program operator that moves learning online must provide an option for in-person instruction.

For Premier Danielle Smith, the regulatory changes guarantee students and parents have access to in-person learning and clarify that children cannot be denied opportunities to learn based on personal decisions to wear or not wear a mask.

"Parents and students have told me time and time again that they want a normal school environment for their kids," Smith said in a statement.

"With that in mind, we have taken steps to protect and enhance educational choice," the premier added. "Families are free to make their own personal health decisions, and, no matter what that decision is, it will be supported by Alberta’s education system."

Adriana LaGrange, education minister, said she heard parents and students alike want "stability" and "clarity" in their learning options.

"Securing a face-to-face classroom environment means students can continue to learn successfully while allowing their parents to go to work," LaGrange said in a statement.

"It will also help to maintain and improve student mental health while minimizing student learning loss," she added.

The province noted that the Public Health Act continues to provide "the overarching direction on all public health matters and would continue to prevail" over any education policies in any future public health emergency.

"This regulation applies to operational issues caused by high student absenteeism and teacher illness," the province explained in a news release.

Only in a "unique situation" may a school or education authority apply for an exemption to the regulation requiring in-person learning for a single or multiple classes or grades.

Both changes to masking and in-person learning apply to all public, separate, Francophone, public charter and independent schools in the province for grades 1 to 12.

The masking change applies to all of the above school authorities and early childhood services.

The new direction for school boards and education providers comes as Alberta grapples with a massive uptick in influenza and other respiratory viruses and surging wait times at pediatric hospitals.

According to national data, including numbers to Nov. 12, Alberta is the only province experiencing "widespread" flu activity, defined by the FluWatch program as outbreaks in more than half of a region's public facilities.

Alberta's new chief medical officer of health recently warned that the premature disruption to school and workplaces during this flu season would continue to result in further absences in what he expects to be a "severe" illness season.

That prediction was sent to all school and daycare communities in an informational letter, alongside basic health advice, signed by Dr. Mark Joffe and Alberta Health Service's senior medical officer of health, Dr. Laura McDougall.

At the end of October, Smith indicated her government would "not permit any further masking mandates of children." Her comments came after the Alberta Court of King's Bench ruling found the province did not go through the proper legal steps to block school boards from imposing their own mask mandates after a provincial order dropped them.

The judge also found the government's decision in February to lift school mandates was "unreasonable" since it was made by cabinet, not the chief medical officer of health, who has that authority given to them under the Public Health Act.

CTV News Edmonton reached out to the premier's office and to LaGrange for further comment.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Alex Antoneshyn Top Stories

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