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Students and supporters gather at the Alberta Legislature after walking out of schools to show support for students, teachers and healthcare professionals, in Edmonton on Feb. 14, 2021. Edmonton Public Schools trustees passed a motion at a special meeting on Tuesday to send a letter to the province requesting immediate guidance as COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, spread simultaneously.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Edmonton’s public school board is calling on the Alberta government to develop thresholds for the number of student absences that would trigger health protocols such as mask mandates and isolation periods as rates of respiratory infections reach a “critical” point for staff and students.

The trustees at Edmonton Public Schools, the second-largest school district in Alberta, made the request a day after Premier Danielle Smith said the government would ensure school boards aren’t permitted to require masks and refused to answer a question on whether she would even recommend them. She has been critical of public-health measures used during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as business closings and vaccine requirements.

The board’s trustees passed a motion at a special meeting on Tuesday to send a letter to the province requesting immediate guidance as COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, spread simultaneously. They are asking for a meeting with the chief medical officer of health, as well as the ministers of health and education.

The board said more than 70 per cent of schools in the district have met or exceeded the 10-per-cent absentee threshold for “outbreak status” by Alberta Health Services, as of Nov. 7.

Trisha Estabrooks, chair of the board, said she wants to see leadership and direction from Mark Joffe, who replaced Deena Hinshaw as chief medical officer of health on Monday. “We are not health officials,” she told media after the board meeting. “We rely on the advice of health officials.”

Ms. Estabrooks said Ms. Smith’s plan to prevent school boards from mandating masks is “short-sighted” and she added: “If we’ve learned anything in this pandemic, it’s the need to be nimble and flexible and respond to the situation.”

The Edmonton public school district recommends students wear masks.

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The Calgary Board of Education said it had an average student absentee rate across the district of nearly 12 per cent last week because of illness, and more than 15 of its 250 schools have had outbreaks.

Emily Peckham, a spokesperson for the Education Ministry, said in a statement that the government would not implement any further masking mandates in kindergarten to Grade 12 schools, but encourages anyone who feels comfortable wearing a mask to do so. She said the government will review the school board’s letter and “act appropriately” considering advice from the chief medical health officer. The Health Ministry did not provide comment.

Alberta Health Services declined to share data on the number of outbreaks in the province’s school system.

The Alberta Federation of Labour, a worker advocacy group, sent a letter to school boards also on Tuesday urging them to implement temporary mask measures. President Gil McGowan said it is not enough for school boards to ask for advice.

“You are the last line of defence for students and staff in our schools. Please do the right thing,” Mr. McGowan said.

He pointed to a recent court ruling in defence of school boards’ power to act. Last month, an Alberta judge concluded the United Conservative Party’s order in February to lift masking mandates in school was “unreasonable” because it was made by cabinet and not by the province’s chief health officer. Ms. Smith has said the government is considering an appeal or legislative changes.

In Ontario, the province’s chief medical officer has recommended wearing masks indoors to protect young children but stopped short of recommending they be mandated. Hospitals are seeing unusually high numbers of children with respiratory infections.

Also on Tuesday, Alberta’s health authority held a news conference about respiratory illness season and its impact on hospitals across the province, notably the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton. Officials with AHS said infections are expected to keep increasing and that there have been more severe cases this season than in previous years.

As of Nov. 7, more than 1,000 people in Alberta were in hospital with COVID-19, 36 of whom were in intensive-care units, including people whose primary reason for seeking care was something else. There has been a steady rise in hospitalizations since the start of September, according to government data. Nearly 900 cases of the flu have been recorded by AHS, as of Nov. 5, with 146 in hospital, including 13 in ICUs. About 40 per cent of admissions were Albertans 19 and under.

Margaret Fullerton, senior operating officer at the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, said wait times hit 12 hours over the weekend, and one teenage patient was transferred to an adult hospital because of overcrowding. She said it was a rare situation and that they are working on building greater capacity on site, in addition to increasing staffing.

Pediatric ICUs at both children’s hospitals are close to 100 per cent of their normal capacity, said AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson in a statement on Monday. He said they are adding staff to increase beyond their normal capacity, as at any peak time. At the Calgary site, the emergency department has recently had more than 300 visits a day, compared with between 180 and 220 in recent surges.

David Shepherd, Opposition New Democratic Party critic for health, said in a statement that the AHS update will do little to ease the anxiety of Alberta parents. He said Health Minister Jason Copping and the new chief medical officer should publicly address the extent of the current health crisis and how it will be handled.

With a report from The Canadian Press