EDMONTON — Dozens of students in Alberta walked out of their classrooms Monday afternoon to protest the government’s decision to lift a mask mandate in schools.
Samuel Clark, a 17-year-old co-organizer of the protest, said some students gathered at the Alberta legislature in Edmonton because they are discouraged and disturbed “to think that so many people and their parents are more concerned about the cloth on their face than protecting their peers and teachers.”
“I have many friends who are immunocompromised and they are terrified. They are in Grade 12 and they really need to be at school this year to make sure they do well in some of these classes for university applications.”
Students in schools are no longer required to wear face coverings following an announcement by Premier Jason Kenney last week that the province would lift all pandemic restrictions in the coming weeks if COVID-19 indicators remain stable or trend downward.
Children 12 and under also don’t have to wear masks in any setting.
Clark said 80 per cent of students in his rural Alberta class were unmasked during an afternoon lesson on the first day the change kicked in.
“I just felt like I was enclosed in. The premier needs to take care of students in this province,” he said.
Toby Maltais, a co-organizer of the protest, said she was diagnosed with a disease two years ago that left her immunocompromised.
“I’ve stopped eating at school to protect myself and my family,” the 17-year-old told the crowd of protesters.
“I’m so confused about how this decision was even made. It is heartbreaking to know my premier is bending a knee to the people that have no empathy toward me and my fellow immunocompromised people.”
Earlier in the day, the Alberta Federation of Labour, on behalf of five parents with immunocompromised children, had argued a request for an emergency injunction to keep masks in place.
Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Grant Dunlop, saying there was “no evidence of irreparable harm,” dismissed the application. Lawyers representing the union and the parents said they were planning to submit another request.
The union was also challenging Education Minister Adrianna LaGrange’s announcement that it’s now illegal for school boards to bring in their own rules to override the province.
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“Removing universal masking in schools forces many children to choose between their education and their health — and in some cases, their life,” Sharon Roberts, a lawyer representing the union, said in a statement.
“We are seeking an immediate pause of the decision to remove masking, as well as the incorrect assertion that school boards cannot continue their own mandates,” added co-counsel Orlagh O’Kelly.
Kenney took to Twitter to say he was content with the judge’s decision.
“Pleased to report that the Court of QB just threw-out the ridiculous application by the NDP Labour Federation to force kids to wear masks indefinitely,” his tweet said.
“Common sense is prevailing.”
While some have said they welcome the step toward normalcy after almost two years of kids going to school with their faces covered, others said they are anxious and worried over what has become a divisive, political issue in the pandemic.
Teachers will have the option of not wearing a mask if a provincewide mandate lifts as planned March 1. That’s when remaining school requirements, such as students having to remain with their cohort group, are also to end.
LaGrange said in a letter posted on her Twitter account last week that there has been a downward trend in the number of schools shifting to at-home learning due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
The Alberta Teachers’ Association has said community spread of the virus has not decreased significantly and the union is exploring legal options.
Trisha Estabrooks, chairwoman of Edmonton Public Schools, said the district was planning to tell parents that masks are still encouraged.
Brian Wawrow of Edmonton said his kids and their friends would go to school with their masks on.
“They all feel like they’re going to just be as safe as they possibly can and use their own common sense to keep protecting themselves and the kids that they’re around,” he said.
“My biggest fear’s my dad’s 89, So if my kid gives me COVID, then I can’t go see my dad. My wife’s parents are 70. The health-care system has been battered.”
Wawrow said he understands everyone is exhausted by regulations.
“We certainly are, but we want to see a proper end to (the pandemic) and not just pretend it doesn’t exist anymore.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 14, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship
Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press