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Students at Alberta schools will no longer be required to wear masks starting next week, and masks will only be required for school staff.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

As Alberta lifts its mask mandate for students on Monday, doctors and educators worry that a safety measure in schools is being stripped too soon and could spark a raft of new COVID-19 infections.

Experts agree that mask mandates, like other pandemic restrictions, should not be in place indefinitely. The challenge facing public health officials is finding the right moment to relax school-safety measures and not compromise the progress made in keeping students in classrooms.

In Alberta, only school staff will be required to wear masks starting next week. Saskatchewan also plans to make school masking optional by the end of February.

Alberta’s Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said in a statement about the mandate removal that she was “encouraged to see a downward trend” in schools shifting to home learning. It was important, she continued, for students to see the facial expressions of teachers and classmates, and that the government had to consider “the mental health impacts that come along with public health measures, such as masking.”

There has been no evidence that masks negatively affect learning and the studies showed mixed results on the psychological and communication effects on children wearing masks, according to recent findings from Public Health Ontario. The review of evidence around masking among children, published earlier this month, stated “there was no objective evidence for reduced respiratory function in children that wore masks, with commonly reported complaints being subjective.”

The paper also found that schools with mask mandates were associated with lower transmission rates of COVID-19, but it was difficult to conclusively prove the extent that masks contributed to safety. That’s primarily because schools with mask policies also have other layers of infection control, including screening, ventilation and grouping students by classroom.

Kevin Schwartz, an infectious-disease physician at Public Health Ontario, said masks play a part in reducing transmission among students, and this is not the time to lift mandates, especially in his province.

Parents in B.C., Alberta anxious as schools set to reopen amid COVID-19 surge

“We’re coming out of a pretty significant wave with hospitalizations and ICU numbers going down and in the right direction, although still high. I think there’s going to be a time and place for restrictions to be removed. I think it makes a lot of sense to remove the most stringent restrictions,” such as business closures and gathering restrictions, Dr. Schwartz said, adding that masking is a “less burdensome intervention” that is effective in reducing infection.

Masks have been one of the key strategies deployed by public health to keep schools open, even though some families have challenged the mandates. Recently, some provinces, including Alberta and Ontario, shipped masks to schools to help protect students and staff from the more contagious Omicron variant. Ms. LaGrange said on social media last month that her government was providing masks, along with rapid tests, to students and staff to “support a safe return to school.”

Stephanie Smith, an infectious-disease physician at the University of Alberta Hospital, worries that lifting a mask mandate will cause further disruptions to student learning, especially if more children must stay home because of illness. She said provinces should look at metrics, such as hospitalizations and vaccinations among children, before loosening restrictions. “My concern right now is that we have not come down from our peak of hospitalizations. … It’s a little hard to swallow that we’re going to start easing all these restrictions.”

Dr. Smith acknowledged that some families have complained about having their children wearing masks, but “for the vast majority of kids, if given a choice to wear a mask or potentially go to online school, I think most of them would say ‘I’ll wear a mask,’” she said.

Edmonton Public Schools chair Trisha Estabrooks says some parents are in favour of the government’s decision to lift the mandate. Her board has encouraged students to keep masks on during the school day, and she expects most will continue to do so. “Both my kids have said, ‘It’s no big deal, mom.’”

Ms. Estabrooks, as well as the Alberta Teachers’ Association, is concerned that the government dropped the mask mandate without any consultation. The “hasty decision” has created confusion among families and educators, she said.

“I really hope we don’t end up in a situation where any child is facing bullying or being made fun of for a choice to wear a mask. I do continue to believe that masks are an effective way to mitigate the spread of COVID.”

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