BARRHEAD - In keeping with a motion passed in mid-August not to impose any additional health measures beyond what has been mandated by the province, Pembina Hills School Division trustees decided at their Sept. 8 meeting not to impose a new mask mandate in local schools, though anyone over the age of two will still have to wear masks while riding the school bus.
Board chair Jennifer Tuininga said the discussion over whether to require masking in Pembina Hills schools was the result of the province’s Sept. 3 announcement that masks would now be required in all indoor public spaces and workplaces.
Notably, that announcement did not apply to schools, as the province opted instead to leave it in the hands of school divisions as to whether to require masking.
“As trustees, we are not health care or medical experts, but in the absence of government leadership, we have been given the following direction: school authorities continue to have the ability and corresponding accountability for any local measures that are put in place, such as physical distancing, cohorting and masking requirements that may exceed provincial guidance,” said Tuininga.
Prior to the Sept. 8 meeting, Pembina Hills had published a notice on its website that the board would be discussing a possible further mask mandate.
“Due to the nature of the topic and limitations on in-person gatherings, it was decided to both livestream and record this meeting to make it accessible to the public,” Tuininga added.
As has been the case elsewhere, the prospect of such a discussion provoked a strong response from the public, as a small anti-masking demonstration was held outside of the Pembina Hills office on Sept. 8 by a group of 20 to 30 parents and children. (Several parents from all over the division also went into the meeting.)
As well, Tuininga said they received 69 submissions sent in by parents and community members in the form of letters, e-mails and phone calls to trustees.
They even received a video put together by a group of grandparents and parents with a slideshow of their children, as well as a written submission sent in on behalf of 48 parents and guardians in the Busby area.
“The vast majority of the 69 submissions were against mandating masks in schools,” said Tuininga, noting that all of the submissions were reviewed by trustees prior to the meeting.
Trustee Jackie Comeau said that in her years as a trustee, she had never seen such an outcry from parents over a single issue as she had over the past few days.
She noted she had heard a litany of reasons why not to mandate masks, ranging from the pain they cause to children’s ears to their use causing panic attacks to parents claiming the masks would cause long-term health issues.
Unfortunately, Tuininga indicated that not everyone was calm and respectful on this issue.
“The board appreciates the input that we have received and the varying views presented. However, we do want to address that e-mails containing threats or ultimatums are not helpful or useful to the discussion,” she said.
“Our goal is to have kids in school and learning with their teachers and support staff.”
Masking motion withdrawn
During the Sept. 8 meeting, Tuininga and other trustees voiced their frustration at what they perceived as a “passing of the buck” from the province to local school boards.
“I'm disappointed that there wasn’t clearer direction given to schools across the province. And now each school board is left trying to make their own decision as far as what makes sense for their community,” said deputy chair Wendy Scinski. “I think we’ve been let down by our government and that’s unfortunate.”
Eventually, Comeau made a motion for Pembina Hills to require masking in common areas of schools, such as when students are congregating in hallways at the end of the day. (Masking in classrooms would not be required, though encouraged.)
Comeau said that while she had heard a lot of comments from parents who were opposed to masking, she had to consider the staff members who were still dealing with the effects of contracting COVID-19, as well as those staff who missed weeks of work during the 2020-2021 school year due to cases popping up in local schools and pregnant staffers who were worried about getting COVID this year.
She said one parent had told her that trustees are not in the business of medicine, but Comeau pointed out that the business of the school division now included hiring professionals like behavioural specialists, counsellors, psychologists, social services and so on.
“We are not just in the business of education anymore,” she said.
Comeau also noted that this is a very fluid situation and it may be the case in a couple weeks or even a few days that the province will mandate masks in schools themselves.
“It’s just a very fluid time and you don’t know (what will happen) one day to the next,” she said.
Trustee Judy Lefebvre was the first to speak against the motion, pointing out that while they can mandate masking in schools, youth will be taking them off when they congregate in groups when they get out of school.
Trustee Kerry McElroy said he preferred to stick with the motion the board had made at a special meeting on Aug. 19 — to not layer on any additional health restrictions in local schools beyond what the province had imposed.
Noting that trustees had reviewed a great deal of data and submissions prior to this meeting, Tuininga said she believed masks are a tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but it was more important to have people vaccinated.
Retiring superintendent Dave Garbutt, who is holding a temporary position with the division while new superintendent Michael Borgfjord is getting his bearings, said he was not recommending the board to impose any measures and to instead stick with the decision they made on Aug. 19.
Garbutt said that if he still had children in school, he would direct them to wear masks, but he didn’t have a rationale for recommending all students wear masks all the time.
He said he was also uncomfortable with the government downloading this responsibility to the board, but more importantly,” there is no data that we can hang our hat on and say (a mask mandate) is the right thing to do.”
Recognizing that there was little support among the other trustees, Comeau ultimately withdrew her motion.