SUNDRE — Inspired by the momentum started by Freedom Convoy 2022, a handful of parents decided to peacefully demonstrate earlier today, Feb. 1 against masks and mandates in front of River Valley School.
Cali Johnson, a mother of two children who go to school at River Valley, was joined on Tuesday, Feb. 1 by her sister Emerald Coates, whose kids go to school in Olds, as well as friend and supporter Erin Devisser, who opted against sending her own kids back to class earlier on.
“I pulled them out at the beginning of the mandates, and we’ve been homeschooling,” said Devisser. “But I have lots of friends with kids in school here, and I’m here to show support.”
With the weather plunging back into a deep freeze as temperatures dipped down to about -20 C, they remained inside a parked vehicle adorned with several signs including one that read “Unmask Our Kids” in front of the school, but stepped out for a few minutes to share their thoughts.
“We’re just trying to raise awareness of kids wearing masks, and get more people on-board to be against it and stop the mandates so our kids don’t have to wear masks at school,” said Johnson, adding the signs were pretty self-explanatory.
“They should be free to live in Canada. Freedom of choice is all that we’re asking,” added Coates.
All three said masks should be optional, and added they just want people to be able to choose one way or another whether their children should wear a mask to school. They also said everyone’s choice should be respected regardless of whether someone decides to don a mask or not.
A majority of health experts maintain that proper use of face masks is an important part of the equation in reducing the spread of COVID-19.
Schools no place for protests
Kurt Sacher, Chinook’s Edge School Division superintendent, told The Albertan he had been made aware of the situation ahead of time.
“It’s out on social media. Someone will alert a staff member, and it’ll make its way to us,” Sacher said.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” he said, adding officials in such situations attempt to determine how a demonstration might play out.
“It’s unpredictable,” he said. “We elevate supervision whenever there’s the potential of any kind of demonstration or protest.”
Division officials, he added, were pleased that at least some of the groups that were organizing to express concerns opted to pursue a letter-writing campaign rather than protesting at a school.
“We’re so appreciative of that. A school is — in our opinion — not a location to protest,” he said.
“The reason being, we have more students than people realize that go to school on any given day with different levels of anxiety, and it just puts them in a bad position to learn that day. We just really don’t want to see our schools ever become a place of protest.”
However, the superintendent seemed grateful that those who gathered remained peaceful.
“Now, all that said, with the minor demonstration that occurred, everyone was respectful,” he said. “I think the point was made. I think it’s clear to everyone that there’s definitely a group of people that are upset with the mask mandate.”
But the school division is upholding a public health mandate put in place by Alberta Health and the government, he said.
“Our people have no option but to uphold that mandate. It is not a negotiable mandate — it’s a legal order,” he said.
Demonstrations exacerbate student anxiety
School staff and administrators, said Sacher, are focused primarily on moving forward with student learning.
“We just wanted everybody to get back into the routine of learning — that’s what we’re about,” he said.
Asked whether demonstrators are legally allowed to protest on school property not that far away from the main entrance, he said, “My understanding is that the protesting needs to be done off of school property. But even when it’s close to school property and it’s visible, it’s still a concern for us because it’s a distraction to the flow of the school.”
Furthermore, demonstrations can add “a level of anxiety that some of our vulnerable students really don’t need. Our general population probably doesn’t need it, and our staff and our administration don’t need it.”
Yet the superintendent also expressed understanding for the need people have to voice their views.
“I don’t dispute that,” he said.
But he encourages them to go through the proper channels that involve writing letters and connecting with appropriate people who are involved in the decision-making process.
“Let’s not disrupt the flow of the school. That is a precious place for learning, and we need everyone to be safe — not just physically but emotionally,” he said.
“As a school division, we have not gone beyond the mandates. We have every opportunity to put in place additional masking expectations, and we haven’t gone beyond the legal mandate, which we are allowed to do.”
The challenge, he said, lies in finding an equilibrium between what division officials must do to secure and maintain a safe learning environment based on advice from Alberta health experts, and also the needs of each community.
“It’s not easy for our staff, it’s not easy for us, and at times it’s not easy for the students either,” he said.
Sacher confirmed that a few students were also asked to leave the school over their refusal to wear a mask.
“On any given day, there may be a situation like that. So, it was a little more than normal,” he added.
And perhaps the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is growing brighter.
“I am optimistic that in the spring — with numbers continuing to decline from what we’re hearing — I’m hopeful there will be some loosening of restrictions,” he said.
“At the moment, we’re just really pleased that we have our students in face-to-face instruction and that we haven’t had to move to online learning in any way.”
RCMP respect right to peaceful protest
Sgt. Trent Sperlie, the Sundre RCMP detachment’s commander, said his department had been made aware of the protest on the school’s property not far from the main entrance.
Provided people behave responsibly, they have the right to protest peacefully, Sperlie said.
"We have to respect that so long as they remain responsible adults,” he said.
The sergeant added that local Mounties had no intention, as of the time he spoke with the Albertan just after noon, of stepping in.
Police must play a delicate balancing act between respecting people’s right to peacefully rally and express grievances, and recognizing and supporting the fact that the school is following the rules and regulations they’re bound by as per the provincial government’s mandates, he said.
“The school didn’t make the rules,” he said, also expressing understanding for the need some people might feel to speak against a status quo they disagree with.
And while the mandates are imposed by the provincial government, finding a direct, effective means to air concerns can be challenging for people who end up looking for the nearest outlet, he said.
The sergeant said police would only get involved at such a time that either legal lines are crossed or the peace is breached.