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Student mental health challenges in Alberta partly created by masking: LaGrange

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The Alberta government will be boosting funding for mental health challenges, which Education Minister Adriana LaGrange says were partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic's mask mandate.

Speaking from a school in northwest Calgary, LaGrange said the Smith government recognized the issues facing students, teachers and parents and would be improving funding for an initiative announced in the most recent budget.

"In Budget 2022 and in response to the child and youth well-being action plan, we committed to allocating $110 million toward comprehensive supports to learning disruptions on the K to 12 school system," she said, adding that that funding included up to $10 million per year for the next two years for new mental health supports.

LaGrange says that money is now doubled – $40 million over the next two years.

"We will now be able to support up to 60 mental health pilot projects in K to 12 schools across this province," she said.

"The projects will take a collaborative and innovative approach to improving student mental health through counselling, social and emotional learning, student assessment, family and parent-orientated supports and training for school staff."

Nicholas Milliken, Alberta's minister of addictions and mental health, says the investment is part of the Smith government's "larger plan" to address the issues facing students.

"They are just the latest initiative aimed at giving youth the tools they need to thrive," he said. "These actions reflect our commitment to helping children and youth."

MASK MANDATE HARMFUL, MINISTER SAYS

While school closures over the pandemic had an impact on the health and mental wellness of students, LaGrange says that wasn't the only cause.

"While many of the mental health challenges that we're addressing today not only came from the learning disruption but I also hear from parents and teachers and children themselves that it was the masking that contributed to those challenges," she said.

"Some have had issues with breathing properly, learning properly so, of course, the very reason we are here today is to address the mental health and wellness of our students and very much ensure they are able to learn in-person as much as possible."

She doesn’t elaborate on which specific mental health issues have been sparked by mask use, but some people have been critical.

LaGrange says she looks forward to working with Alberta's new chief medical officer of health, who was named earlier this week, but does not see the province moving toward another mask mandate.

"We have been very clear that we do not anticipate going to a masking mandate. That being said, if people feel comfortable – whether it is staff or students or parents – wearing masks, they can make that decision for themselves," she said.

She says schools throughout the province were instructed on what they can do to prevent outbreaks in schools.

"They are doing what they can in terms of handwashing, increased sanitization of contact areas. The biggest thing they can do is encourage students and staff, when they are sick, to stay home."

The Calgary Catholic School Division has so far moved two classes online, CTV News has learned, and the Calgary Board of Education says it is considering a similar move.

That board says whole grades could be impacted, all in response to staffing shortages brought on by sickness. Many classrooms are experiencing high numbers of student absences.

The strain on schools come at the same time as children's hospitals in the province report massive lineups and wait times caused by respiratory illnesses such as influenza, RSV and COVID.

ALBERTA CONTINUES TO WATCH

Despite no additional changes coming from the Smith government, LaGrange says she will "continue to monitor" the situation facing schools.

"Of course we'll take guidance from the new chief medical officer of health and beyond that, we will continue to ensure our schools and our staff members are protected through whatever possibilities there are out there."

(With files from Bill Macfarlane)

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