New regulations prohibiting schools from mandating masks and shifting to online-only learning have been announced by the Alberta government, which said many families have often been caught unprepared by these measures in the past two and a half years.
“Regulatory changes will guarantee students and parents have access to in-person learning. These changes also clarify that children and students cannot be denied in-person education by their school authority due to their personal decision to wear or not wear a mask,” the provincial government said in a news release on Nov. 24.
“This change creates an inclusive environment by ensuring personal and family choices are respected.”
The regulation takes effect immediately. The in-person learning applies to grades 1–12 in all school settings, including public, separate, francophone, public charter, and independent schools, and the masking regulation applies from early childhood services to grade 12 in all settings.
“Parents and students have told me time and time again that they want a normal school environment for their kids,” Alberta Premier Danielle Smith said in the news release.
“With that in mind, we have taken steps to protect and enhance educational choice. 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.”
The regulation allows exceptions in certain cases, and a school authority may apply for an exemption to the in-person learning regulation for educational programming provided in a sensitive setting like a hospital or correctional facility.
The government also said the regulations will help minimize potential learning loss, citing assessments that have found students returning from online-learning falling behind in their studies.
During the 2021–22 school year, school authorities launched strategic learning assessments at the request of a $45 million pilot program. The literacy assessments found that about 70,000 students in grades 1–3 were, on average, 11 months behind grade level at the start of that school year following a 17-month period of intermittent online learning, according to the news release.
Assessment results from May to June 2022 show that, after returning to consistent in-person education, the average learning loss dropped to 3.7 months.
“There is unassailable evidence that COVID-19 has impacted children’s reading performance, particularly in early grades. The action taken by Alberta Education to mandate early screening and intervention is fully in line with research findings and best practice,” George Georgiou, professor at the University of Alberta, said in the release.
The Alberta government said it has provided $10 million in the current 2022–23 school year to allow school authorities to continue this assessment work.
Critics of the policy have pointed to the health risks children are facing with an onset of influenza, respiratory syncytial virus, and COVID-19 combined.
Smith, however, said earlier this month while replacing Dr. Deena Hinshaw as the province’s chief medical officer of health that “we are in a new phase where we are now talking about treating coronavirus as endemic, as we do influenza.”