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Alberta's Chief Medical Officer is trying to reassure parents and teachers as students start returning to schools across the province next week. Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw updates media on the COVID-19 situation in Edmonton on March 20, 2020.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Alberta’s top doctor apologized Monday for anxiety and confusion a back-to-school public-health order caused over the weekend, and she also flagged a major COVID-19 outbreak at a Calgary church.

The order issued Saturday spells out that schools do not have to ensure two-metres of spacing when students, staff or visitors are seated at desks or tables.

Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw said it’s not a departure from the guidance she announced in early August and that the order was meant to provide clarity for school administrators.

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“I am very sorry that unfortunately the opposite has happened and that this tool, which was meant to clarify, has caused more confusion. That was not the intention,” she told reporters.

She said the timing was not meant to hide information but to be transparent, and that ideally the order would have been published sooner.

The order codifies Alberta’s policy requiring masks in schools. Staff and students in Grades 4 to 12 must cover their faces when they’re in common and shared indoor areas where physical distancing cannot be maintained, like hallways and buses.

However, the rules are eased for classrooms so that masks don’t get in the way of learning and communication.

Where two metres of spacing can’t be achieved, Hinshaw said students should be seated in rows so that they are less likely to cough or sneeze directly into the face of classmates.

“We were trying to balance the benefits and harms of masking and figure out how we could best achieve the most appropriate COVID prevention, while at the same time not impeding some of the important functions of school.”

Alberta reported 426 new COVID-19 cases over the past three days. Of the province’s 1,370 active cases, most – 590 – are in the Calgary zone.

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Forty-four people are in hospital, including eight in intensive care. Two additional deaths were reported over the weekend, bringing Alberta’s fatality total to 239.

Fifty-seven cases have been linked to an outbreak at church in Calgary.

Hinshaw said anyone who attended the Kidanemhret Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in the past two weeks should get tested for COVID-19 and stay home if they have symptoms.

She also said children who were at the church in the past two weeks should not go to school this week as a precaution.

Health officials are still tracing contacts and trying to understand the full scope of the outbreak and Hinshaw said it’s too early to know what may have sparked it.

“It is critical, as always, that members of this church be supported and not targeted or stigmatized,” she said.

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“An outbreak can occur anywhere and those involved need our compassion in this difficult time.”

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