Alberta government memos on school masking ‘damning,’ union leader says

Internal documents, ordered released through the courts, are raising new questions about the Kenney government’s February decision to lift the mask mandate in schools and block school boards from bringing in their own.

The new evidence is part of an ongoing case involving the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) and the parents of five immunocompromised children who are fighting the decision announced near the peak of the BA.1-driven fifth wave.

Lawyers are challenging the change through a judicial review and argue Albertans have the right to know what the province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, recommended to cabinet prior to the decision to lift the mandate.

The province was required by a Court of Queen’s Bench justice to hand over evidence this week about what went on behind closed doors prior to the change.

And while it submitted 183 pages, it refused to provide key documents — Dr. Hinshaw’s PowerPoint presentation to cabinet on Feb. 8 and the cabinet minutes from that day — citing cabinet confidentiality.

“Even with what’s there, I think it tells a pretty damning story about what this government did during the height of the Omicron wave,” said AFL president Gil McGowan, adding the information that was provided raises more questions than answers.

“The limited documents that were disclosed to us suggest very strongly the government made this decision to lift the mask mandate based on politics and a desire to cater to the anti-mask crowd rather than on science and a concern about what would be in the public interest.”

Mask-free schools had 3 times more outbreaks

A key revelation in the Alberta Health briefs is that while many factors can impact COVID transmission, school boards without mask mandates at the start of the 2021 school year had, on average, three times more outbreaks than those with masks.

According to the documents, Alberta school boards with mask mandates had an average of 7.3 outbreaks at the start of the school year and those without had an average of 23.4 outbreaks.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, calls the information handed over in the case ‘damning.’ The AFL is is made up of 25 unions from both the public and private sectors, representing nearly 175,000 workers. (Manuel Carrillos/CBC)

Staff within the health department noted case and hospitalization rates were lower in areas where mask mandates were required in children (5-11 year olds) and adults (30-59 year olds).

The same document also cited an outbreak at Westglen School in Edmonton with 71 cases (70 children and one teacher), which led to significant spread and ultimately accounted for 66 of the 94 cases in that neighbourhood, reversing a downward trend in cases at the time.

That information is not included in a memo, of the same date, from political staffers to the premier.

“There is insufficient direct evidence of the effectiveness of face masks in reducing COVID-19 transmission in education settings,” states the memo.

“Existing research supporting mask use in schools has limitations that make the pool of evidence weak and the benefits of masking children unclear.”

The memo also highlights what it calls the “harmful effects” of mask-wearing on children, saying “masks can disrupt learning and interfere with children’s social, emotional and speech development by impairing verbal and non-verbal communication, emotional signaling and facial recognition.”

They relied on a lot of that very thin evidence and a lot of it quite speculative that masks are harmful to children.– Lorain Hardcastle, U of C assistant professor

The documents from both Alberta Health staff and political staff include references to numerous studies with various conclusions about masking in schools.

Lorian Hardcastle, who teaches in the faculties of law and medicine at the University of Calgary, calls the evidence referenced in the memo to the premier “speculative.”

“The evidence as to the benefits of masks isn’t perfect because it’s often difficult to separate masks from the variety of other public health interventions that were occurring. But certainly many people argue that — particularly where children are concerned — governments should adopt more a precautionary principle. And it doesn’t seem like that’s what they did here,” she said.

“Instead, they relied on a lot of that very thin evidence and a lot of it quite speculative that masks are harmful to children.”

Evidence ‘distorted’

The details uncovered in these documents support a prevailing sense of suspicion among many Albertans that the government was not acting on the scientific advice offered by Hinshaw, according to a Calgary-based political scientist.

“We saw essentially a review of the available scientific evidence that was quite nuanced, that suggested that mask mandates in schools actually did have a significant impact on transmission in the schools that was then translated into a briefing note for the premier that said there was really no evidence that masks were helpful in schools,” said Lisa Young, professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

“It was more than over-simplifying the scientific advice. It really was distorting the evidence that had been presented.”

In a statement provided to CBC News, a government spokeperson said officials weighed the risks and the benefits at the time and did their best to balance them.

We’ve never said kids were not at risk from COVID, or that masks in schools had no benefits.– Steve Buick, government spokesperson

“We received advice that masks can disrupt learning and interfere with children’s social, emotional and speech development by impairing verbal and non-verbal communication, emotional signaling and facial recognition. We’ve never said kids were not at risk from COVID, or that masks in schools had no benefits,” Steve Buick said in an email.

“We reviewed all the evidence in the context of the situation at the time, the other measures in place, and the overall risk to kids and the wider community.”

Buick didn’t answer questions about why the provincial government continues to refuse to release key evidence in the case.

But he said it became clear in February that it was time shift to living with COVID-19 and return to normal “given declining rates of hospitalizations and severe outcomes, especially for children.”

According to Alberta Health’s own website, on Feb. 8, the day the province announced its plans to lift the mask mandate, there were 1,663 people hospitalized with COVID in Alberta, one of the highest hospital totals of the entire pandemic.

Lawyers have until June 10 to decide if they’ll challenge the province’s cabinet confidence claim and push for the release of the documents the UCP government has so far refused to disclose.

“I think the fact that some of these documents have been disclosed is a win in and of itself. It’s a win for transparency and government accountability,” said Orlagh O’Kelly, one of the lawyers in the case, noting other provinces are watching for any precedent that could be set.

“The public has the right to know how these decisions are being made and what kind of information is considered relevant to making these important decisions.”

Meanwhile, according to Hardcastle, this case highlights a greater question about whether decisions made by officials such as Hinshaw should be guarded by confidentiality.

“Should we have greater transparency? Does the public have the right to know the reasons and the data?

“And I think in terms of that tension, I certainly come out on the side of greater transparency.”

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