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Calgary parents riled after province scraps physical distance rules in schools

Calgary parents, already nervous about their kids’ return to school Sept. 1, are frustrated the province has now backed off physical distancing rules in classrooms.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, signed an order on Saturday (Aug. 29), which appears to have eliminated the need for physical distancing measures in classrooms across the province.

The order states that “an operator of a school does not need to ensure that students, staff members, and visitors are able to maintain a minimum of 2 metres distance from every other person when a student, staff member, or visitor is seated at a desk or at a table.”

Critics have accused Dr. Hinshaw of attempting to enact the change quietly over the weekend. Others believe that her decision is politically influenced and the result of pressure over smaller classrooms and potential overcrowding in schools.

The Alberta NDP also chimed in. Education critic Sarah Hoffman took aim at the decision.

“This wknd we found out they were changing rules for physical distancing in schools because their back-to-school plan was insufficient & would violate their own public health orders,” Hoffman wrote in a tweet.

“The order does not change my direction and reports that indicate otherwise are incorrect,” said Dr. Hinshaw, in a series of tweets. A request for direct comment from Alberta Health was directed to the CMOH_Alberta Twitter account.

Later, in the afternoon COVID-19 briefing, Dr. Hinshaw clarified the process.

“Our intent originally had been to get the order completed earlier, and unfortunately, because there a number of issues that needed to be worked out with respect to processes and legal tools and those kinds of things… it took longer than we had anticipated,” she said.

“It absolutely would have been ideal if this order was completed and posted sooner.”

Uneasy times

The majority of children will be back at school on Sept. 8, but some have already returned.  

“It’s an anxious time for everybody,” said Ryan Northcott, a Calgary based parent and filmmaker, whose 10-year-old daughter has already gone back to school.

“There’s an uneasiness about going back under the current plan. You just shake your head and you go ‘there was just no thought.’”

On March 16, schools across the province closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve had several months now to think about what a safe re-entry looks like, said Northcott.

In the final hours before doors open to in-person classes, the province changed the physical distancing order.

“To reverse an order, just for schools, it’s gross,” said Northcott.

“It almost feels like it’s to protect themselves, not the people who are actually going to be there,” Northcott said.

In the tweet thread attributed to Dr. Hinshaw, that was disputed.

“This timing was not to hide information from Albertans but to ensure school authorities knew about the order before it came into effect today,” said Dr. Hinshaw.

Difficulty distancing for kids

Before the official order, Northcott says that he, along with other parents, doubted that adequate physical distancing was a possibility.

“I think it was just inevitable that they weren’t going to be able to distance properly,” said Northcott.

He said that physical distancing is a “foreign concept” for adults. It’s even more difficult for kids to grasp the idea.

And while it’s being characterized as political, Northcott said this goes beyond politics. It’s about kids being safe.

Everyone wants political and community leaders to be successful with something like this, he said.

“If the NDP was in power and they did something like this, I’d still have comments,” said Northcott.

“It’s disheartening. I’m very disappointed.”