Premier Doug Ford’s government has fired a shot across the bow of school boards pushing to extend COVID-19 masking in classrooms beyond March 21.
In the wake of a decision by the Hamilton-Wentworth public school board to keep masking in place until April 15, Education Minister Steven Lecce issued a statement Friday afternoon telling boards to stick to the provincial timeline issued by chief medical officer Dr. Kieran Moore this week.
Ford reinforced that during a stop in Barrie, noting Ontario is one of the last jurisdictions in North America to lift masking requirements in schools and most indoor public spaces — leaving the decision to wear a mask a personal choice.
“Let me be very clear to the school boards: they aren’t medical experts. The chief medical officer is the expert and he has done his due diligence, he’s consulted with other medical officers … he doesn’t make these decisions lightly,” Ford told reporters.
“Our expectations to the school boards — and to the exception of parents that want their kids to put masks on — follow the direction of the chief medical officer, plain and simple. That’s what we expect,” he added.
“Anyone who wants to wear a mask, I encourage you to wear a mask.”
Concerns about lifting the masking requirement arose in some quarters on Wednesday when Moore announced the plan, which takes effect on the Monday after the March school break.
In his statement, Lecce said “school boards in this province are expected to implement this cautious plan, coupled with the ongoing improvement of air ventilation within Ontario classrooms.”
The Toronto public and Catholic boards have both asked to keep mask mandates in schools for a few additional weeks, seeking the advice of Toronto Public Health and Lecce’s ministry.
“We will continue to follow direction from the ministry and public health as we have done throughout the pandemic, including lifting masking on March 21,” said Shazia Vlahos, chief of communications and government relations for the Toronto Catholic District School Board.
The board approved a motion at its meeting Thursday night to ask the ministry to consider extending mandatory masking “for two weeks after March break so that younger students (five to 11) can get vaccinated.”
Across Ontario, 55 per cent of children aged five to 11 have had one COVID-19 shot and just under 30 per cent have had two doses, while 91 per cent of kids 12 to 17 have had two jabs.
Patrick Casey, director of corporate communications for York Region, said it will “continue to strongly encourage wearing a mask when you’re indoors and in one of the 3 Cs — close contact, crowds and confined or poorly ventilated spaces; this could be in some school settings.”
In addition, “in an era when mask wearing becomes optional, vaccination is our best and last strong defence against COVID-19 … We strongly recommend everyone gets vaccinated with first, second and third doses if you are eligible as soon as possible.”
A senior Ontario government source told the Star that local health units have discretion under Section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act in deciding whether current pandemic conditions pose enough of a threat to warrant orders for continued masking.
That raises questions as to whether any decisions by school boards alone to extend mandatory masking would be enforceable, the source added.
Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said she understands there are concerns about COVID safety in schools when face coverings are no longer mandatory and said “we urge and recommend” boards to speak to their local health units.
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The Hamilton-Wentworth public board voted Thursday night to require all staff and students from Kindergarten to Grade 12 to mask until mid-April.
However, later Friday it emailed parents clarifying because this motion “goes beyond the provincial guidelines, the chair of the board is in active contact with the Ministry of Education to gain clarity on next steps. We will provide families and staff further communication and clarity on mask requirements as soon as possible, and prior to March 21.”
Toronto District School Board Trustee Rachel Chernos Lin had said she’d like to see “a more gradual approach” to lifting restrictions.
“It’s been a lot for families to absorb,” she said at a Thursday night meeting. “We need families to come along with us and feel safe, and we need staff to feel safe in making these changes.”
Toronto Catholic Trustee Maria Rizzo said an additional two weeks would give more kids time to get vaccinated.
“We’re not asking for a long time but only a chance for parents and educators to speak to their children and help them adjust to changes,” said Rizzo. “Some kids have never experienced classrooms without masks.”
Peel Public Health said it would not override provincial directions on masking, although spokesperson Ashleigh Hawkins said masking remains an “effective intervention” against the virus.
“Peel Region is highly vaccinated and also has residual natural immunity from having experienced more severe transmission in the first five waves of the pandemic,” she said via email.
With continuing low rates of COVID, “Peel Public Health does not have the context to support deviation from the provincial direction in our community,” she added, noting that masking “may need to return if our context changes.”
Lecce said Ontario is also putting 49,000 more HEPA units in schools and child-care centres to filter the air based on advice from Moore.
The move is part of a decision “to invest heavily to improve air ventilation,” he added.
In Alberta, mask mandates for students ended about a month ago and the move was made without any consultation with school boards, said Trisha Estabrooks, chair of Edmonton Public Schools. For staff, the mandate ended March 1.
“I would say initially, after that decision was made, lots of students continued to wear masks, and even (Thursday night) I attended a school council meeting and the principal reported probably 95 per cent of students in his school were continuing to wear masks,” she said.
However, she added, “It’s a very different experience depending where you are in the city.”
Since the mandate was lifted, self-reported cases of COVID among students has decreased — but Estabrooks noted self-reporting is not a reliable measure. Staff absences however, have also gone down, and the number of unfilled teaching or educational assistant jobs has also abated and eased since mid-January, she said.
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74
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