Editor's note: Updated throughout
EDMONTON — The Alberta government says it will follow the lead of Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia and make wearing masks mandatory for most students and staff when schools reopen in September.
Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange announced Tuesday that students between Grades 4 to 12 and all staff will be required to wear masks in common areas, hallways and on buses.
"Emerging evidence has made it clear that masks can play an important role in limiting the spread of COVID-19 in our schools," she said at a news conference in Edmonton.
Children will not have to wear masks when sitting in class at a safe distance from others.
Masks will be optional for younger students.
"This is because mask use for younger children is a challenge due to difficulties with proper fit and compliance," LaGrange said.
"Current medical evidence indicates that children under 10 may be less likely than older children or adults to transmit COVID-19."
She said more than 1.6 million reusable masks will be provided to 740,000 students and 90,000 staff across the province. That will include two reusable masks for each student and staff member, and employees will also receive a plastic face shield for optional use.
Hand sanitizer will also be supplied, and each school will receive two contact-less thermometers for discretionary use.
Alberta schools were shut down in mid-March when the pandemic took hold in the province. The government initially announced in July that it was safe to reopen schools in the fall, but masks would not be mandatory.
Edmonton and Calgary have since required the use of masks in public areas.
Alberta's chief medical health officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said Tuesday she has been reviewing medical evidence of COVID-19 in schools around the globe.
"This is similar to the approach being adopted in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia," Hinshaw said.
"My team was reviewing the current guidance including evidence from jurisdictions around the world. Today's announcement is the result of that detailed review."
Opposition NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said the announcement is a start, but only addresses one of the 15 recommendations her party made last week to reopen schools safely.
"I think that the only reason why the government has moved on this today is because of significant public outcry when it comes to education," she told reporters Tuesday.
Hoffman said one of the measures that's shown to be most effective in schools elsewhere is capping class sizes.
"And to make that happen, we need to make sure that this government is funding education properly to ensure we can hire the additional staff, teachers, custodians, educational assistants to make sure that our kids are safe and spread out, as well as space," she said.
"This isn't opened or closed. This is about safe or unsafe."
The president of the College of Alberta School Superintendents applauded the move to make necessary adjustments to keep students and staff safe.
"It is important to be responsive to those changes," Bevan Daverne said.
"I think by this state we all recognize that this is a shifting landscape in dealing with the challenges that this pandemic has brought."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2020
— By Bill Graveland in Calgary and with files from Lauren Krugel
The Canadian Press