Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says he's accepted all along that COVID-19 infections in schools are inevitable and that's no reason to keep classrooms shuttered.
His remarks come after a school in Okotoks, south of Calgary, delayed its planned reopening because a staff member was diagnosed with the novel coronavirus.
At another school in Calgary, the principal, assistant principal and administrative secretary were forced into a 14-day quarantine after someone at the school tested positive.
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“It’s always been clear that there’d be some outbreaks. And from time to time there’ll be classes or even schools that have to suspend operations for a while,” Kenney told media on Tuesday, calling his province’s back-to-school guidance a strong plan.
“The inevitability of that should not be a reason for us indefinitely to keep the schools closed.”
Criticism of his government’s refusal to delay the start of classes this week peaked over the weekend when the chief medical officer of health signed a public health order clarifying unmasked students and teachers could be within two metres of each other so long as they were seated and the desks were arranged "in a manner to prevent people from facing one another."
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Mask use is mandatory in Grades 4 and up and amongst staff in common areas like hallways.
Asked about his confidence in Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the premier called the signing simply confirmation of guidelines that were developed earlier in the month.
“Plain and simple. It’s unfortunate that some people are trying to create controversy where none should exist,” Kenney replied.
“Dr. Hinshaw and her team, they did not come up with our guidelines arbitrarily. Or based on mere opinion. They did it based on a very close reading of the most up to date research and data coming from jurisdictions that have opening their schools.”
Hinshaw echoed the premier's statements, telling CTV News Edmonton on Tuesday she regretted guidance from her department hadn't been straight forward enough.
"We were contemplating the fact that children's overall affect is our goal, and we need to protect children from COVID exposure -- we also need to make sure they have an environment that supports their learning and make sure the rules are clear," Alberta's top doctor commented.
"While we tried to provide the guidance, we tried to provide things in writing early on, that didn't reach everyone. And so I think the order has helped to clarify that particular aspect that has always been a part of our plan, but perhaps was not clear until that order was placed."
She reminded the public that in order for masks to not be used, other conditions must be met: students must be seated as far away from each other as possible, not moving throughout the classroom, and not facing each other.
Kenney also responded Tuesday to calls, including from Alberta Teachers’ Association, to restrict classroom sizes. Kenney called a demand from the NDP to limit class sizes to 15 unrealistic.
“(That) would require opening 13,000 new classes, building 800 new schools, training and certifying 13,000 new teachers at an estimated cost of $4 billion. That’s not a plan to reopen the schools. That’s a plan to keep them shut.”
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange is expected to announce Wednesday how $260 million in federal dollars for schools is to be spent.
“We appreciate the additional federal funding, but there is no world in which you could reduce class sizes in half and reopen the schools for the current school year,” Kenney said.
“It's simply fictitious. It has nothing to do with reality.”
With files from The Canadian Press