CALGARY -- A health order signed over the weekend by Alberta's chief medical officer of health has lifted a mandate requiring physical distancing in the classroom when students return to school.

The order, endorsed by Dr. Deena Hinshaw, 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 two metres distance from every other person when student, staff or students are seated at a desk or table."

The decision applies to classrooms and other instructional settings where seats are arranged to prevent students from facing one another.

Prior to the introduction of the order, concerns had been raised over the ability of schools to maintain two metres of distance between students.

The majority of students in Alberta are slated to return to school this week either in-person through online learning hubs.

In an eight-part post to Twitter Monday morning, Hinshaw claimed the timing of the order's release was not underhanded and school boards were notified ahead of time.

Hinshaw adds that masks will remain mandatory for students, staff and teachers in shared areas, including hallways and buses, where appropriate distancing cannot be maintained.

Alberta’s top doctor also apologized for the confusion caused by the updated health order.

“I am very sorry for the anxiety and confusion that this order has sparked. This timing was not meant to hide information. Ironically, it was meant to be transparent,” she said, adding there had been mixed messaging about mandatory masks while seated at desks.

She maintained the updated health order clarifies that masks don’t need to be worn while someone is sitting, even when two metres of distancing can’t be achieved. 

Hinshaw says wearing masks could hinder the learning experience for some students while sitting at a desk. 

“I found it stunning, almost. I think that right now we’re in a time when teachers need clarity and confidence in the re-entry plan,” said Jason Schilling, the president of the Alberta Teachers Association.

Schilling says the ATA conducted a poll of its members over the weekend and found that 91 per cent of teachers are feeling anxious about the province’s school reopening plan.

The health order was signed the day after Friday’s deadline for parents to decide whether to send their children to in-class learning or online. 

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

The province has mandated mask use for students in Grade 4 or higher in areas where physical distancing cannot be observed but some school boards have expanded their use to all students including those in kindergarten.

With files from CTV's Jordan Kanygin and Virginia Wright