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Faced with 'impossible task,' St. Paul trustees choose masks

Masks to be required in common areas; Two Hills Mennonite School students exempt
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ST. PAUL - Students in Grades 4 to 12 and staff at most St. Paul-area schools now need to mask up in common areas, following a vote by St. Paul Education trustees on Sept. 8.

Students won't need to wear masks in classrooms or at their desks. Additionally, for religious reasons, students who attend the Two Hills Mennonite School won't be required to wear masks, though masks will be highly recommended.

Trustees and superintendent Glen Brodziak all expressed frustration at the division-wide masking issue decision before them, calling it unfair and a no-win situation.

Brodziak said he has had calls and emails from people on both sides – those who want mandatory masking in schools and those who want the choice to wear a mask or not.

“On both sides, people are worried about the mental health of our children. Both have told me it would be on my conscience if something goes wrong,” he said.

“I only say this because it basically (shows) that I know our board is faced with an impossible task to please everyone.”

Brodziak estimated students would need to wear masks for about an hour over the course of the day: for 10 or 15 minutes in the morning, during a couple of breaks, at lunch when they aren't eating or drinking, and when dismissed for the day.

He noted the division was not looking to re-introduce other measures such as cohorting, limiting extracurricular activities or limiting student interaction during lunch and recess.

“I still realize that masks are a pain, absolutely – there's never been a question of that – but I also believe they are one layer of protection against the pandemic,” he said.

Trustees weighed the consequences of each side before making their decision. If they didn't bring in restrictions, it was noted the province could impose its own rules if 10 per cent or more of students were absent due to illness or isolating. They also noted that masking in common areas was a step back from rules last year that required students to stay masked unless they were sitting at their desks.

Division A trustee Lorne Young said if masking in common areas could help keep schools open, he is in favour of it.

“I think the one thing we can all agree on is the best place for our kids to be is in school,” he said. “I know there's no right answer on this, but I really want those kids to be in school and I want those staff to be in school.”

Board chair and Division F trustee Heather Starosielski said she ultimately supported the recommendation to mask up because the mental health aspect of being forced to learn at home far outweighed having to wear masks for an hour a day.

“When I look at the mental health of students, what's been harder on them? I think what's been harder on them has been the isolation of having to be forced to be at home, and not be educated with their peers and be around teachers and to be in extracurricular activities,” she said.

Trustees also heard from Sue Stybel, a parent who spoke on behalf of parents and students who were frustrated with masks being mandated in schools again.

Stybel said she and a school principal in the division had estimated 95 per cent of students and staff chose not to wear a mask when they started the school year.

Classes were only in session for two days with those relaxed measures before the Alberta government announced on Sept. 3 that masks would be mandatory again in all indoor public spaces and workplaces.

She described the devastation felt by some students at having to resume wearing masks.

“With all due respect, our children are done getting whiplash from these guidelines,” she said.

Stybel also expressed support for trustees and staff, acknowledging the difficult position they were in. But keeping masks as recommended instead of mandatory meant everyone would be able to choose what was best for them, she said, instead of forcing some students to do something they didn't feel was in their medical best interest.

“I ask you this: go back to the original school plan that makes sense, that 95 per cent of your community supports, and that takes the responsibility off of our children's shoulders and places it back where it belongs: on each individual to take care of their own medical health,” she said.

Beyond frustrated' with provincial leadership

The board will be writing to the province communicating its frustrations and concerns about having health decisions downloaded onto it.

The suggestion was brought up by Division E trustee Dwight Wiebe.

“I think we can tell from what we've just been through how frustrating this kind of thing can be,” he said, referencing the debate about masking. “And why we're being put in this position in the first place is beyond me.”

Starosielski took aim at the province for a lack of leadership, noting she felt school boards had been “hung out to dry” by the province.

“(I am) beyond frustrated with the leadership that is happening at the provincial level that has been offloaded to boards and to other various municipalities with having to come up with universal rules that change from one district to the next, or one community, town or city to the next,” she said.

In a statement posted to its website Sept. 10, St. Paul Education stated school divisions no longer receive notification from Alberta Health Services (AHS) of positive cases.

"While we appreciate that people want to cooperate and make others aware, without official confirmation and direction from AHS, we can no longer effectively carry out contact tracing in our schools," it stated.

"It is unfortunate that school boards have been placed in a position to make many pandemic response decisions independently."