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Court documents reveal how Kenney prioritized his own interests over Albertans' when he removed masking in schools

A slew of internal documents, recently released to the public, confirmed what many Albertans already knew — the provincial government prioritized politics over public safety when they removed COVID-19 protections in schools, ignoring evidence schools without masking had three times the number of COVID-19 outbreaks.

The documents come out of a court challenge by the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) and the families of five immunocompromised students over the provincial government’s decision to end mask mandates in K-12 schools.

“We initiated the case with the knowledge that, without masking, many families would be forced to decide between education and safety — a choice no one should have to make,” Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said.

This was especially the case for immunocompromised children, who face heightened risk without proper safety precautions in place.

McGowan and the AFL were also concerned about the health and safety of workers in education, without whom our schools wouldn’t run. This includes teachers, educational assistants, custodians, maintenance workers, and administrative staff.

“When our students aren’t safe, neither are the Albertans who work hard to provide them with the best education possible,” McGowan said.

The Government of Alberta decided to lift the mandate on February 8, near the peak of the fifth wave, when the risk of transmission was high, and COVID-19 remained consistent. Despite 808 Albertans being hospitalized with COVID-19 at the time, with 96 in Intensive Care Units, the provincial government decided to go forward with lifting numerous public safety measures. This included getting rid of the Restrictions Exemption Program, capacity limits for places of worship, and masking in schools. The government even banned local school boards from implementing their own masking policies despite some, such as Edmonton Public Schools, wishing to do so.

Kenney’s government claimed rigorous evidence and research informed their decision to lift the mask mandate. We asked them to prove it.

“In our court challenge, the government had the chance to show the evidence that went into their decision,” McGowan explained. “Rather than defend their decision and provide this evidence, the government tried to hide it.”

In court, the government refused to turn over key documents and the court had to order them to release them — not once, but twice. The first time, the government handed over memos from Alberta Health showing schools without masking were three times as likely to experience COVID-19 outbreaks.

Yet, the government knew the presentation given to cabinet, the core decision-making body of government, was even more damning and attempted to escape accountability again under the protection of cabinet confidentiality. Of course, this kind of secrecy (which is meant to ensure cabinet ministers can have open and honest debate about public policy) is important, but it is never absolute, nor should it be. When it comes to understanding the validity of government decisions, experts agree cabinet secrecy doesn’t apply to documents containing facts and background information that went into the decision.

Thankfully, the courts wouldn’t let the Alberta government evade due process. Their tactics didn’t work, and the government was forced to disclose the advice Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, gave them in the presentation: hospitalizations were way too high to drop protections.

The government’s memos, briefing, and internal presentations confirm Kenney lied when he claimed his government followed the evidence. Throughout the documents, there’s clear evidence the government’s political interests influenced their decision and the premier’s staff cherry-picked the science around masking in schools to fit their political narrative.

Hinshaw told Kenney it was too soon to remove protections, government removed them anyway due to their political motives

When the provincial court ordered the government to release their documents, they fought hardest to prevent Albertans from seeing the presentation given to cabinet. Once this presentation became public, it was easy to understand why they tried to hide it — the presentation shows the government knew our health care system was strained but chose to remove restrictions anyways.

Jason Copping, the minister of health, gave the presentation to cabinet on February 7, explaining the COVID-19 status in Alberta. However, Dr. Deena Hinshaw prepared the presentation, ensuring it contained expert advice based on sound science.

Hinshaw’s presentation explained that, at the time, the province was still in the “pandemic phase” of our response to COVID-19, where a high level of hospitalizations placed significant pressure on our health care system. While Hinshaw hoped Alberta could begin the transition to an “endemic phase” soon (where severe outcomes are reduced and the impacts of COVID-19 are manageable, similar to other illnesses), she noted hospitalizations were at a “plateau,” remaining stubbornly high.

Since this was the case, the government should have held off on removing public safety regulations — and Hinshaw presented this information bluntly to Kenney and his cronies. In the PowerPoint, Hinshaw explained how the government should only lift safety measures once the health care system was no longer under strain. This was predicated on hospitalizations declining over a sustained period, something which had yet to happen. Even in a future where this did happen, Hinshaw recommended gradually lifting protections over time, rather than all at once.

Despite the clear science before them, the government chose to remove protections the very next day. The decision blatantly contradicted the framework Hinshaw laid out in the presentation and the government knew as much.

Why, then, would the government remove all public safety measures? The reason, openly stated in the PowerPoint, was Kenny’s desire to be the first government in Canada to lift protections.

Of course, there’s no value in being the first to throw away regulations. In fact, the presentation outlines the dangers of such an approach, mentioning how plans that rapidly remove safety measures leave the health care system with little time to regain capacity and leave policymakers with less time to learn from other jurisdictions that open first. Lifting public safety measures is also easier than reinstating them, making it difficult for governments to reverse course if the health care system gets overwhelmed again.

The government’s obsession with being first, however, overpowered these risks.

They even added this goal into their framework, forcing Hinshaw to outline three potential options to remove public health measures when hospitalizations were clearly too high to safely do so.

Despite Hinshaw’s advice, all options favoured lifting protections quickly due to the directives provided by Kenney and his ministers. Alberta being a “leader” in removing public safety measures is even listed as a benefit under the first two options. Ultimately, the government decided to go with the second option for reopening, removing most major protections the very next day after the presentation was given. They then removed the remaining public safety measures in two later phases.

Given the risks of rapidly dropping these protections against COVID-19 and being the first province to remove most measures was not in the public interest of Albertans and the government should never have placed a high emphasis on this goal in their decision-making process. Hinshaw’s presentation made this clear, but the government chose not to listen.

“Simply put, this was political fanaticism at the cost of public safety,” McGowan said.

The only party that seemingly benefited from the decision were the politicians in cabinet, who wanted to appeal to Albertans who were COVID-skeptic and wanted no protections, no matter the cost. Overwhelming, public opinion research suggests this benefited the governing political party and their own interests rather than Albertans. This was about poll numbers, not the number of Albertans in ICU.

Government ignored evidence showing schools without masking were more than three times as likely to have an outbreak, chose to speed up the decision to drop masks in schools

Interestingly, when Kenney and his team of advisers met to determine the timeline on removing measures, they chose to remove masking in schools earlier than planned. The second option outlined in the PowerPoint presentation (the one the government chose to implement) initially had the government lifting mask mandates at a later date. If this plan had been followed, masking would’ve remained in schools for another two weeks.

However, at some point in their discussions, Kenney and his cabinet ministers chose to accelerate the process to drop masking, moving it into the first step. The government also stripped local school boards of their ability to adapt their own masking policies — a measure Hinshaw never mentioned in her presentation. This decision is a clear attack on the autonomy of elected trustees, who know more about what policies suit their students’ needs than Kenney does.

While the provincial government claimed removing masking was in the best interest of students, briefings from their own civil servants suggest otherwise.

“Reading the documents, a clear discrepancy emerges between what non-partisan experts from Alberta Health told the government and the information backroom staffers in the premier’s office chose to emphasize,” McGowan said.

The briefings and memos prepared by Alberta Health staff summarized existing research on masking in schools to help inform the government’s decision. Multiple documents demonstrate how masking, alongside other preventive measures, helped to reduce COVID-19 transmission.

When looking at how masking effected outbreaks in our province, Alberta Health said that schools without masking in place at the beginning of 2021 were three times more likely to experience an outbreak than those with masks. Additionally, cases and hospitalizations were lower for children and adults in areas with mask mandates in place.

Another important takeaway is that outbreaks in schools don’t only affect students and parents; Alberta Health staff noted these outbreaks can lead to increased transmission in local communities. They offered the example of an outbreak in Westglen School in Edmonton: in late September, Westglen School experienced an outbreak of 71 cases and, despite the school choosing to move to online learning to prevent further transmission, COVID-19 cases increased significantly in the postal code where the school is located. This made the neighbourhood a statistical outlier compared to the rest of Edmonton, where cases were stabilizing and decreasing at the time. Notably, 70 per cent of the new cases in the neighbourhood were linked to the Westglen School outbreak.

This evidence clearly demonstrates, within Alberta, masking in K-12 schools not only protected students but the broader community as well. This is vital for understanding how, in rushing to lift protections in schools, the provincial government placed many Albertans in harm’s way, even if they aren’t students themselves. The decision harshly impacted students, workers, their families, and their communities.

Alberta Health also included research from beyond Alberta which showed that schools with a range of prevention measures had significantly lower transmission than those without and masking was a core practice across most of these studies. Of course, it’s important to note the evidence of masking isn’t perfect — due to schools deploying multiple measures at once, such as social distancing and enhanced ventilation, it can be difficult to isolate the impacts of one measure compared to another.

This, however, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an impact; in fact, studies from UK Public Health England, Ontario Public Health, and the CDC concluded that, although they couldn’t determine direct causation, schools without mask mandates had higher rates of COVID-19 transmission.

Together with the data gathered from Alberta, these documents showed that masking was a key policy to keep our children and communities safe. Even if it was difficult to isolate the impacts of masking from other preventive measures, our government should have taken a cautious approach, especially when we were at the peak of the fifth wave. Masking needed to be a part of that approach.

Documents prepared by the premier’s staff give us insight as to the rationale behind the decision to ignore the science: a briefing note prepared by the premier’s staff discredited masking as an option despite its correlation with lowering the risk of transmission. Instead of properly summarizing studies, the memo discredited existing evidence that supported masking, calling it “insufficient” and “weak.”

For some inexplicable reason, the memo didn’t mention Alberta schools without mask mandates experienced triple of the number of outbreaks. It didn’t even mention most of the research compiled by Alberta Health in separate briefings.

What the premier’s office did flag was the “harmful effects” of masking on children. The memo went in-depth on how masks can impair communication and how they are uncomfortable to wear. Later on, the minister of education used some of the same reasons, such as an inability to see facial expressions and to be joyful, when publicly justifying their decision to drop the mandate. While there are important considerations around masking, the evidence behind these supposed harms are thin at best and misleading at worst.

Upon the release of these internal documents, experts were quick to call out the premier’s office for relying on “speculative” research to overstate the harms of masks while also “distorting” the evidence behind wearing masks. At the Alberta Federation of Labour, we held the government to account by calling out the massive gap between the information provided by Alberta Health and the spin provided by the premier’s office.

It would be an understatement to say the documents from the premier’s office are concerning — these memos expose a government that disregarded expert advice from their own civil servants and instead relied on quack science to justify their political decisions.

Overall, the documents give a terrifying glimpse into a premier and a cabinet willing to put themselves first at the expense of Albertans.

“From the documents, we know this isn’t a government interested in serving the public good,” McGowan said. “Instead, this is a government content to gamble with the lives of Albertans in a game of politics, no matter the cost.”